21 September 2017

Blind Faith?

‘WITH AN MBE, AN HONARARY DOCTORATE AND A FREEDOM OF THE CITY OF LISBURN AWARD, IN RECOGONITION FOR HER ACHIEVEMENTS, JANET GRAY HAS COME A LONG WAY FROM THOSE DARK DAYS OF DESPAIR.’

raWhen her dad lost his sight, d o c t o r s believed it was a tragic but isolated incident. Later, as Janet Snowdon watched her twelveyear- old brother go blind, medical experts agreed that the rare form of Glaucoma was unique to the male lineage. By the time she was seventeen, Janet discovered they were wrong. To her horror she learned that her rapidly blurring vision was due to the same strain of Glaucoma. If it continued in the same familial pattern, Janet was destined to join them in their world of darkness.

“My dad went blind when I was four so I’d never known him any other way but when my brother also began losing his sight, I was more aware of the trauma involved. The prospect of it happening to me was terrifying! The prognosis wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. By using the prescribed drops, I may not have terrific vision but I could potentially ward off blindness.”

While her peers wrestled the intricacies of algebra, Janet struggled to see the blackboard.

Any suggestion that she exchange mainstream education for a school specially geared to the needs of visually impaired students was vehemently refused.

“I didn’t want the label of being different and soon devised a way to pass the school’s routine eye tests. Alphabetically I was always near the end of the queue so I had time to study the chart. By the time it was my turn, I had memorised the letters and knew exactly where each one was placed. I passed every time!”

Not only did Janet manage to remain in the school of her choice, she went on to pass all her exams. She also picked up a number of awards for her skill as a swimmer and life-saver and landed a perfect job, as life guard, in the local leisure centre.

Just when it seemed that life couldn’t get better, Janet’s boyfriend, Paul Gray proposed.

“Like me, Paul adored water sports and, until he was injured, had been a successful ski instructor. We were really excited as we planned our wedding day in Seaman’s Presbyterian Church. I’d grown up there and was involved with all the activities. My Christian faith was important to me and I thought it important to demonstrate the more practical nature of Christianity. I particularly enjoyed my role as Leader of the Scouts.”

In the weeks prior to her wedding, Janet was admitted to hospital for an eye operation. When she kissed Paul goodbye on the day of her surgery, she had no idea she would never see him or her family again.

“Waking up totally blind was horrific. To be plunged into total darkness was my worst nightmare. I can’t begin to describe the awful sense of vulnerability and panic that overwhelmed me as realised I’d never see again.”

As her prayers for a miracle went unheeded, Janet spent her days trying to come to terms with her strange new world.

“It’s very frightening to go from the sighted world to complete darkness. In those early days, I cried constantly, and prayed fervently, for what I’d lost. It didn’t seem so long ago that life had been filled with such promise. Suddenly, at just 21, everything was taken away from me.”

As the future stretched bleakly before her, Janet made some painful decisions.

“Although I found it a wrench, I felt I had no choice but to resign from the Scouts. But the most painful decision was to cancel the wedding. I still loved Paul but I didn’t want him to feel obliged to marry me.”

Fortunately neither the Scouts nor Paul were prepared to give up so easily.

“Looking back, I’m thankful that God gave me such a wise Group Leader! When I told him I was resigning, he asked me if I’d do one more week to show the new Leader the ropes. I agreed but as the evening wore on, it was obvious my replacement wasn’t coming and, not wanting to disappoint the lads, I carried on as normal. This scenario continued for another few weeks before I caught on!

There was no new Leader. I discovered that lack of vision didn’t affect my ability as Beaver Scout Leader. I withdrew my resignation and my confidence began to return!”

A few days after she’d broken off their engagement, Paul arrived at her parent’s home.

“Paul asked to speak to me and I reluctantly agreed to hear what he had to say. When he explained that his feelings weren’t based on my visual skill and that I was the same Janet he’d always loved, my heart melted. His reassurance was just what I needed and, happily, the wedding was back on track.”

As preparations got underway, the young bride had more than her share of heartache.

“I’d get so frustrated at not being able to see! I wanted to choose everything by sight not touch. It must have been awful for mum who tried to encourage me to feel the pattern and material of my dress. She comforted me and dried my tears. I don’t know how I would have coped without her. She has been one of God’s richest blessings.”

A few days before the Big Day Janet and her dad spent their evenings at the church, counting and memorising the steps to the altar. Eventually, holding her father’s arm, Janet walked down the aisle and into her new life as Mrs Gray.

“It was a lovely but very poignant day. We’d experienced more than our share of sadness but we were determined not to let it ruin our future happiness.”

In the following years, Janet had not only accepted her condition but learned to cope with its daily challenges. Finally she’d regained her independence.

“I loved to go shopping alone, although I sometimes ended up in Boots when I wanted to go to Marks and Spencer! When people realised I was blind, they often insisted on helping me across the road whether or not I wanted to go! It was hilarious!”

At week-ends Janet accompanied Paul to one of Northern Ireland’s waterways where she relaxed on the boat while he skied.

“I loved going to the lakes with Paul. One day, he asked if I’d like to have a go at skiing. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Nevertheless, I joined him behind the boat. Next thing I know, he’d hauled me up by the life jacket and insisted I standon the skis. It was exhilarating and I was hooked! I did three laps of the lake. It was a major turning point in my life. I believe that God had given me a new direction and purpose”

From that moment, Janet spent every moment of their spare time on the water.

Before long, she was proficient  enough to enter competitions and in 1999, won her first World Disabled Championship. Two years later she did it again, then in 2003, she took title for the third time.

“It was absolutely fantastic! I’d finally found my niche. Paul, as well as my family was incredibly supportive. Life was great.”

As her fame spread, Janet won numerous sporting and television personality awards. Her confidence soared. But in 2004, tragedy struck and, once again, Janet’s life imploded.

“It’s incredible how, just when you least expect it, your life can be ripped apart. I was in Florida training for an event and decided to have a quick ski round the lake. It should have been a pleasant, routine event. I had no idea I was about to collide with a steel ski ramp at over 40 miles per hour! The accident broke every bone in my face and caused lifethreatening injuries.”

Immediately Janet was air-lifted to Florida’s trauma unit where she underwent emergency life saving surgery. Meanwhile Paul had been summoned from Northern Ireland. He had no idea of the serious nature of his wife’s injuries. But the American doctor’s suggestion that he consult a funeral director, gave him a fair idea. He was desperate to get to her. However, God had not left Janet without comfort.

“I was drifting in and out of consciousness but I knew someone was with me. I later learned that a local Christian woman had heard of the accident and rushed to the hospital where she kept a vigil at my bedside, offering words of comfort and prayer. I’ll never forget the kindness of that lovely woman.”

News of Janet’s accident soon reached Northern Ireland and many gathered to offer prayers. Perhaps the most touching was a world-wide link of text messages sent by the children.

“I was really moved when I heard how school children had instigated a chain of text messages around the world. The message, ‘Pray for Janet’ was simple but it was powerful. I believe God answered their prayers. I am a living miracle.” For Janet life became an endless round of surgery as doctors attempted to reconstruct her face.

“Considering that the only photo they had to work with was from my passport, they did an amazing job!”

In 2007, it became clear that, while the accident had crushed Janet’s body, her determination remained unscathed.

“I was determined to get back on my ski! I’d set myself little goals like getting out of the wheelchair, then off the crutches until finally I could stand on my ski. Once that was accomplished, there was no looking back!

Incredibly Janet not only managed to resume her sport. She went back into competition and for the fourth time, showed the world she was indeed the World Champion Water Skier.

“My life is proof that, with God nothing is impossible!’

Today, as a result of the accident, Janet continues to endure further painful surgeries. Yet, despite the trials, she continues to ski. She has also added a new dimension to her life.

“I’m fitness training in preparation for the new ski season. I’ve also been spending time studying and have become a certified Mind Factor Coach and Mentor. Mentoring is a new challenge but it’s exciting and rewarding to be able to help others achieve their goals.”

When asked what advice she has for others facing challenges, she has this to say:

“Set the end goal and then work toward it in small, achievable chunks. As long as you keep your faith and focus in harmony and remain determined, you’ll get there.”

WORDS Lorraine Wylie