Last week I had the amazing opportunity and privilege to photograph a woman and her daughter who deserve to be recognised on International Woman's Day. I admire and look up to both of these fiercely strong and driven women. I was lucky enough to meet Melissa nearly six years ago when she brought a beautiful little girl, with the most amazing head of hair, into the the long daycare that I managed. I quickly learnt that this shy toddler was an independent and eloquent young lady that had the most amazing role model in her mummy. Melissa was in the early stages of an MS diagnosis, and I will be honest I had no idea how big an impact these two girls would have on me.
Last year Melissa's battle with MS became even harder as she endeavoured to raise $70,000 to try and fight this debilitating disease by getting to Russia for stem cell treatment. MS was getting the better of Melissa's body and making everyday activities harder and more exhausting. She wanted to be able to lead a 'normal' life with her young daughter and was finding this increasingly harder every day. Melissa found a tribe coming together to help and support her in getting her to the one of the only places that would offer her a chance at recovery. This tribe consisted of many strong women from her local community, from her daughter's school, from her neighbours and family as well as many strong and supportive men. With the power of a tribe behind her, Melissa managed to get to Russia in January of this year, and for one excruciatingly long month away from her daughter, under went the life saving stem cell treatment.
I eagerly watched for Melissa's updates from Russia and loved seeing how she was once again building a tribe for herself with the other patients. The regular posts were inspirational and once again I was in awe of this amazing woman displaying strength, empathy, dedication and belief. I was relieved to her of Melissa's return to the Southern Highlands, and to my street. My neighbour was home and fingers crossed on the road to recovery. I was even more delighted to hear from her, asking me if there was any chance I could come and take a few photos of her and her amazing daughter.
As I approached the park down the road from us, my overwhelming memory is of Melissa smiling and laughing as her daughter scaled the spider's web in the playground.
I snapped away as Melissa spoke and as she cuddled her daughter and as they laughed together. I feel privileged to have been able to capture that.
Melissa told me of the new friends or maybe in someways, family, that she had found in Russia. Other individuals going through the same experience as her and all but one in exactly the same situation of having no family with her in this foreign environment. Yet they came together and offered each other the love and support that they all needed and the one person who was there as a support for his family member, became everyone's support person and he would help them take walks outside of the hospital as well as offer words of empathy and understanding.
I think the most profound element of Melissa's experience in Russia was that of her 'birthday' ceremony. Her doctor conducts this with each of his patients post stem cell treatment. He throws dry ice onto the ground as a celebration of their first day without MS. He then presents them with a symbolic pin to wear and remember this celebration by. To me the depth of understanding that this doctor has for the holistic treatment of his patients and their need for emotional healing as well, is just amazing. This affected me more than I first realised. I feel sadness that this treatment is not available here for MS sufferers and that a young mum had to leave her daughter and family to travel so far to be given this life changing opportunity. Yet she found so much more than just a physical remedy for her body. Melissa found love, support and a chance to start her new journey with the power of a little ceremony that represents so much more than just the end of a treatment.
Melissa is home now; she is with her daughter; she is healing and she is amazing. I am humbled by this lady's optimism, yearn for life and ability to see the good in everything.
This is the start of a new journey for these two fierce women. There is a healing process that needs to be undergone, physically and emotionally. I am in doubt that with the love and support that they both offer each other and receive from their tribe around them, that the healing process will happen.
Melissa and her daughter are amazing role models and I hope that I will be able to show this amazing strength and support as well as depth of love and commitment to my own daughter so that she can grow into a fierce woman who knows the power of her tribe!
Please take the time to read the article posted in the Southern Highland News, and applaud a beautiful and strong woman on International Woman's Day.