WHAT do you do when life hands you a bag of sour lemons? Today’s Face In The Crowd shows the world on a daily basis that using those lemons, one can make the sweetest, tastiest and most satisfying lemonade.
Julinna Florent is an internally and externally beautiful soul who can win the world over with her baby face and friendly personality.
The 37 year old hailing from Marc in Bexon is a regular sociable and outgoing banker whose fast paced life was brought to an abrupt halt after an abscess in her spine left her paralysed from the waist down just over ten years ago.
Florent tells about her battle with depression and disappointment and how she won that battle with her strong faith and a boldness in the face of ignorance.
Hoping to shed some light on life as a paraplegic and inspire those with disabilities in St. Lucia, here is the powerful story of “The Girl In The Wheelchair”.
The VOICE: What was your life like before the wheelchair?
Juliana: I was a normal young woman who walked just fine with no medical conditions or anything. I didn’t walk…I used to run to different places because walking took too much time so I would just run around. I left secondary school in 1995 with two CXC subjects and I wanted to become a fashion designer so I went to work with Gregory Lord so that I could learn to be one, but the way it was going, you had to produce a fashion show so that you could go to Paris to study. That wasn’t happening because there was no money to get everything I needed to get the show going. I did this for some time but then I began to think that life and love would pass me by if I just stayed at home with no education or degree. I then decided to go back to school to write my English, Mathematics and Principles of Business subjects to get into Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. I passed and went on to D-TEMS and did Office Administration. I did other courses which I passed with all A’s and I also did job training.
The VOICE: So what led to you losing the ability to walk?
Julinna: By mid-August of 2004 I started feeling severe back aches that kept on worsening. I went to different doctors and they told me it was probably an infection…they were not sure but then they were not keeping me or anything. To cut a long story short, the pain got worse and I went to the hospital in September and they kept me for three days and then sent me home on a Monday. It was then that I went for a rub because you know in St. Lucia we believe in rubbing away the “bless” because it’s always “bless” you have if your chest or back hurts (she said jokingly). So I went for the rub but it was getting worse. That was on the same Monday. By Wednesday night that same week, numbness. So the next day, Thursday September 9, 2004, we went straight to St. Jude’s Hospital and as soon as I got there the doctor said, based on my symptoms something was resting on my spinal cord. I couldn’t use the toilet even though I felt like I wanted to, I just couldn’t because my legs were numb and I couldn’t walk anymore or carry myself. I had an X-ray done but that showed nothing so I was admitted and a series of tests were done but still nothing was found to indicate what was causing the paralysis. I was sent to Barbados and had an MRI and that’s when they said that I had the abscess in my spine that squeezed my spinal cord until it was damaged. I lad a laminectomy where they removed the backbone to drain the abscess so I lost, from the waist down all control due to the damage to the spinal cord.
The VOICE: How did you feel after this?
Julinna: I thought “That was it”. I thought maybe after a few days I’d get better and I’d be able to walk. Every day I was waking up hoping today would be the day but it’s ten years and some months now and I’m still the same.
At first, you know, I was young so I felt depressed about the situation. I had all my life’s dreams and plans. I wanted to get married and have children. But then, I had not given up on life; every day I was waking up disappointed so I had to change that mindset.
I’m a Christian and I strongly believe in God so I know that He never makes a mistake and my favourite Bible story is of Job; so anyone who knows his story knows what he went through.
In November 2004, I said that I needed to graduate because I had worked too hard to just leave it behind. After I was sent home from the hospital, I went to my graduation on my wheelchair and I was wondering what I would do next, where I would go, and who would employ me. I figured that I would have to stay home bedridden but then one of my college professors came to see me and encouraged me to go out and apply for work telling me that I’m a young woman and that I should work. I took his advice and with his help got the job at Scotia Bank.
The VOICE: How did you adjust to life in a wheelchair?
Julinna: I had therapy to learn how to get on and off the chair but using the chair for the first time, I kept hitting the wall but I learnt. I had to because I was lazy and afraid because I always thought I was going to fall; so if something fell, I would not stretch or bend to pick it up…I had to learn how to manoeuvre with the chair and do stuff differently like get dressed but now if you leave me on my own, I can do everything for myself. It takes a while but I get it done
The VOICE: What are some of your daily challenges?
Julinna: Living with a disability is very expensive. My parents are not rich and I have to go to see doctors all the time. I have to buy medical supplies and disposables and every month we spend a lot, so I decided that I really need to work so that I can take care of myself. Work is not just about getting money; for me it’s more like therapy. At work, I meet people and it’s like when you’re in the house, you can get depressed easily but work is like…you get to know people and maybe inspire others or even give hope to somebody else so it does all of that for me.
Now I’m stronger and I’m able to do a lot more for myself. I live with my parents who help me out a lot especially my mom who helps me get prepared faster. My brother then helps to get to the main road in my wheelchair, then I board a special bus which drops me off at work.
He puts me on the vehicle; when I get to work, he places me in my chair and he does the same after work. When I get home, my mom is there waiting with my chair and wheels me home along a specially built pathway which leads directly to my room courtesy of the L’Abayee SDA Church. Right now, I’m okay. It’s just that I can’t walk but I’m not sick or anything and the bank provided me with a motorised chair so I’m able to go out and be independent. Two problems I face concern the sidewalks as vehicles park in front of the ramps. They have no compassion, not just for me but for anyone. The sidewalks are for walking yet people don’t care and they block the way to chat or walk slowly; they just don’t consider the people behind them trying to get through.
Another issue is the law for persons with disability in the building codes. Buildings are not wheelchair friendly even the new ones coming up. I was told that the law was not yet in place but they need to look into that so people can know that they cannot build buildings without ramps because there are so many people on wheelchairs. You get people from the ships…they don’t stay at home anymore, everybody wants to do something so they need to make the place more wheelchair friendly so that we can have easy access to buildings.
The VOICE: Do people treat you differently or badly at all?
Julinna: I get a lot of stares but when they do, I use it as a conversation starter and say “hi”. They’re curious and are not sure so I believe if I give them the right information then they’ll be educated. Some people ask me; “Are you crippled?” I don’t get offended because they don’t know better so I just tell them I’m not crippled, I’m paralysed because I just cannot walk. If you come to me, I’ll tell you what happened because shutting people off is not educational but if you tell them what the situation is, they will be educated and they know how to treat you. I don’t have a problem with people treating me badly. In fact, they want to spoil me. They’re always asking if I need help and want to push me around but when I need help, I tell them that I do.
The VOICE: You mentioned that you want to get married and have your own family. Is that still in your plans?
Julinna: I should think so. The doctor said yes but I just can’t….control it. A friend of mine just had a baby and she’s in a wheelchair too. So it’s possible but when the time is right.
The VOICE: What should people look out for in similar cases to yours?
Julinna: Pain is the biggest indicator that something is wrong. If you notice that something is affecting you for too long go to a specialist for whatever it is affecting you and not a general practitioner. Also do your research.
The VOICE: What advice would you give to others with disabilities who may believe that life for them is over?
Julinna: Get closer to God and strengthen your faith. God never makes a mistake. I am in the situation so I can talk. There are people worse off after all you could have been dead. God is my source of hope. Everybody can do something and there are places where you can work but mostly, educate yourself because people don’t feel sorry for you just because you have a disability…educate yourself