Giving thanks for an illness suffered
By Chandrea Serebro
Gratitude and appreciation. How many memes do we receive on a daily basis preaching just this? If I had a meme generator, I’d picture Desiree Levin and it would say: If I can feel it, so can you.
Desiree puts all her feelings of positivity and appreciation down to something her father always said: “One needs to have hindsight to have foresight.” With hindsight, Desiree learned that what might have been a crushing blow to her life turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to her, opening doors to some of the best experiences of her life. This was no simple realisation. A provincial sportswoman in table tennis, squash, and golf, Desiree turned to lawn bowls after a car accident impaired her ability to play. But it was when she was left disabled due to an incomplete recovery after falling ill with Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS) at the age of 57 that life really taught her how to see the best in even the worst situation.
“After the illness I spent hours every day in rehabilitation, and it was only after two years of intense work and effort towards recovery that I was told that I was among the minor percentage of people who wouldn’t make a full recovery from GBS, and that I would be disabled for the rest of my life.” This came as a shock, because Desiree was also one of the very few people who did not go into ICU when she had GBS, but it turned out that she was also one of the few who wound up with permanent axonal (nerve fibre) damage. “Living in such pain and hearing this news, I felt that I couldn’t go on, that I could not live like this.” Initially, the recovery process, as the nerve linings regrew, was “incredibly painful”, but her father always said, “This too will pass.” “Having the responsibility of caring for my mother and brother, I did not know how I could live with this ailment. This is when I reflected on my father’s teaching of “fired and tempered steel is strong steel”. And so, Desiree motored on.
Having no medical aid, Desiree volunteered herself at the University of Johannesburg for the Biokinetics students to use as a ‘dummy’, to learn from and on whom to practice their growing skills. “I told them – you can do with me whatever you need to, but just fix me.” Not one to wallow in self-pity for even one moment, these sessions with the budding Biokineticists turned out to be a most uplifting and positive experience for Desiree, who herself learned about the body and her recovery as much as the students learned about it from her physical condition.
And so, on every level of her life, Desiree learned to find the joy and the good despite her physical constraints. “I had been a swimmer in my youth, and I began returning ‘home’ to my hometown Durban more often to relax and rejuvenate my mind, but most of all to swim in the sea, which became an elixir for me along with my walks on the beach.” She became known as “the granny who crawls into the sea”, because the lack of proprioperception (awareness of posture, balance, and position) left her incapable of entering the moving water. “I would notify the lifeguards that I was going for a swim and that they should be extra vigilant watching me. We became fast friends, and I have the fondest memories of these restorative swims and of the lifeguards pushing me across the promenade, seeing Durban beach from my new vantage point.”
These experiences as a disabled woman enhanced her perspective on life and opened her up to a level of appreciation she had never experienced before. “My parents taught me that without a challenge in life, there cannot be enthusiasm, and to be enthusiastic, one must face the challenge by the process of positive thinking. This develops morale and can carry one through the roughest obstructions in life. This is what I applied in my recovery and to my subsequent permanent disability.” Desiree’s belief and faith in her “positive approach, in the energy of life situations, and in Hashem” brought her to where she is today.
Since the day she became disabled nine years ago, Desiree has never been afraid to classify herself as such, not shying away from a perceived inability, but rather viewing herself as having gained opportunities to extend her abilities. Now, Desiree reaches out to others who have trouble coming to terms with their disabilities and also to able-bodied people to encourage understanding and empathy, love and gratitude among all. “So many people require help in life. Everyone has struggles, which might be social, financial, emotional, mental, or physical. I always reach out to people to do as much as they can within their limitations, with what I like to see as my honest, critical, yet encouraging eye – to show people their shortcomings and that they can overcome them. And when I do, people find me positive and inspiring.”
But nowhere does Desiree make this a reality more than in her bowling, which Desiree sees as the “great equaliser of all sports”, because she plays both abled and disabled bowls and excels in both. “On one of my most wonderful trips to Durban I was invited to play in the National Championship for the Disabled, and I won. And this victory gave me the opportunity to be considered for the World Championship in New Zealand, which I competed in after being selected as a Protea and there I won two bronze medals.” Desiree went on to win the National Championships for the Disabled for the next four consecutive years, leading her to be shortlisted for selection for the Commonwealth Games. “This was a proud moment – because I am the only woman, and the only Jew, to have achieved this.” Her sport gave her the go-getter attitude necessary to win, but never to create harm for anyone else, and “to win gracefully and lose with dignity” – a lesson she learned from her late mother.
How does Desiree stay so motivated and positive despite the lemons life gives her? “Gam zu le tovah – this too is for the good – is a mantra that I repeat at every one of my speeches, because no matter what happens in life it is for the good, and one should make it for the good.” She refers back to her father, who taught her that, without gratitude in life, one has nothing in life. And Desiree feels appreciation and thankfulness for even being able to try the things she does or aspires to do on a daily basis.