By Glenda McCarthy
Every once in a while you come across a person with an outstandingly positive outlook on life. Upon meeting Melanie Oliver you will realize she is such a person. With her complete faith and humility, it came as no surprise to many that Melanie, along with her mother Patricia, father Bruce and sister Nancy, were nominated as local heroes for National Mobility Awareness Month earlier this year.
Our heroes are those who do good for the world despite challenges they face themselves. The Oliver family has faced, and overcome, their share of challenges throughout the years. Melanie was born with Spina Bifida and, while limited in mobility, had limitless dreams and aspirations.
“I had a wonderful childhood,” she says. “I led a pretty active life. I always say that I may not be able to do exactly what others can do, but I will always find a way to do it. It may be a different way to do it and some people may think it’s a strange way to do things, but I’ll always find a way so I’m not completely left out.”
Melanie graduated high school in 2001 and then attended St. Mary’s University in Halifax. To say Melanie was determined is an understatement. Her drive to succeed was unmatched. However, this drive came to a halt in March 2005 when she developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. It was a scary, uncertain time for Melanie, her family and friends.
“My oxygen level was at 56 per cent and the doctors were shocked I wasn’t turning blue as my lung had collapsed.” Melanie was diagnosed with sleep apnea and pulmonary hypertension and spent four months on a ventilator, unable to speak.
“As scary and as much of a struggle those months were, it really put me on a path to leading a healthier and better life, but it was a very frustrating time. My parents were there with me the whole time and after a few months got really good at lip reading,” she says with a chuckle. “It was a trying time but I had my family surrounding me and I had amazing nurses in Halifax. Someone said to me, ‘how did you get through it?’ I had so much faith and God got me through it.”
Melanie’s determination shone through as she pulled through the illness and was finally released from hospital after four months of struggle. However, the following September her sister Nancy suffered a stroke and spent months rehabilitating to return to her normal way of life. Despite this, the family continued to count their blessings as they always did. Their attitudes alone are nothing short of admirable.
What seemed to be the biggest blow for the Olivers happened in 2011, when Melanie’s father Bruce was diagnosed with melanoma. They continued to remain positive and carried on living their lives, remaining grateful for every blessing.
“It was like a knife through the heart,” Melanie says of the diagnosis. “I couldn’t even say the word – cancer. I felt like I was in a fog. It was a trying time and ultimately within 18 months, he had two surgeries and two different treatments. Through the whole thing for the most part, he kept his faith and was so positive. It gave me the strength to realize we’re going to get through this. You always have to find the positive in every day. We’ve gone to cancer clinic in St. John’s and we feel guilty because we’re laughing. We love life and we love each other as long as we’re together that’s all that matters.”
Bruce finished his last treatment in 2012 and his scans show he is clear of melanoma.
The Oliver family was nominated by Melanie’s best friend, Jessie Slade, as local heroes for National Mobility Awareness Month – a contest open to Canada and the United States. Four winners received brand new wheelchair accessible vehicles.
“Generosity and selflessness is exhibited by each member,” Jessie wrote in her nomination. “Bruce and Patricia moved from their hometown in Northern Bay so Melanie could work as a resource facilitator to help students requiring accommodations; a part-time job that she devotes herself to fully.”
For the past four years Melanie has been the resource facilitator for the college’s Disability Services office and currently splits her time between Bonavista and Clarenville campuses.
“I’m sure when I was a kid, people wondered what I would be and do when I got older. Now I’m working with other people with disabilities and I love it because they need the support I had growing up and continue to have each day. Sometimes all you need is someone in your corner,” Melanie says.
“I feel absolutely blessed to be in this position, supporting the students with disabilities in the college system – it’s certainly more than a job for me; it’s my heart – I have finally found what I love and feel am meant to do. I truly feel a deeper, stronger connection with my students, as a person with a disability. Although our disabilities differ at times, I understand, to a degree, the challenges they face.”
Her parents drive Melanie 1.5 hours to work at Clarenville. Melanie must enter/exit the van via portable ramp which must be set up by her caregivers.
“The Olivers are self-sacrificing. Bruce and Patricia, both aging, have devoted their lives to caring for Melanie,” Jessie continued in her nomination. “Melanie, despite health and mobility difficulties, devotes her life to helping others who also require accommodations, much like herself.”
While Melanie didn’t take home one of the four vans awarded, she is overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support she received, but remains humble as you would expect.
“I honestly do not consider myself a hero,” she says. “I was born with this disability. I wake up every day and it’s a blessing. You have to find a positive every day and I live day to day like that. I love what I do. I think it’s crazy to think that someone would consider me a hero.”
Her heroes, however, are her mom and dad.
“She devoted her life to being my caregiver. And when my Dad got diagnosed with cancer – the strength he has, it gave me the strength and faith to go on day to day and believe everything is possible. Miracles do happen every day. I would say my parents are my heroes so it’s not so far-fetched that they were nominated but I don’t consider myself one.”
Melanie was a semi-finalist in the competition and received just over 12,000 votes. She has the distinction of making the top 10 per cent of people entered from Canada and the United States.
“So many people supported us; family, friends, co-workers, our church family and even strangers – all who said that we were an inspiring family. Landing at over 12,000 votes made me speechless – and for those that know me, that rarely happens. I was blown away,” she says.
“Saying thank you to all of our supporters seems inadequate. Although we didn’t win the prize of a wheelchair accessible van, we definitely feel like winners. How could we not, with the amazing support of so many beautiful people. It’s truly been a blessing.
“I’m not a person who likes attention – but throughout the months of the contest I felt incredible as we received so many thoughtful comments and well wishes – everyone was so disappointed that we didn’t win. We weren’t disappointed at all though – it was an incredible journey. The most important thing is we have spread awareness of the daily challenges faced by those with mobility issues. We are forever grateful for the kindness, love and support shown to us throughout the whole experience – we only hope God blesses them as much as we have been blessed.”
While Melanie doesn’t consider herself a “hero” she certainly is a role model to many and Jessie summed up the entire Oliver family perfectly.
“They are perfect examples of what it means to be generous, caring, positive, and selfless. They are true heroes in every sense of the word and, just like in heroic stories in the make-believe world, these real-life local heroes deserve a reward.”