When Dubai-based Vanda Corbett was 12, she was told she wouldn’t live to see her 16th birthday. But thanks to her strong mindset, supportive family, good doctors and a serious dose of positivity, she came up with a quest to celebrate life...
“I was seven years old when it started. It began with severe pain in my legs. Not long after, I was diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy. At that time, I was the only person in our state (Alberta, Canada) diagnosed with it.
“The doctors didn’t know what it was or how to treat it. It would seem to start for no reason and then it would just get better.
“When the pain was bad, nothing would help ease it. I was on crutches, or in a wheelchair a lot of the time, and in and out of hospital – they tried lots of different treatments but nothing seemed to work. My parents are both chiropractors, so we tried a lot of that too. We also tried every alternative therapy out there – acupuncture, reiki, colonics…
The turning point
“Things got bad when I was about 12. I ended up back in hospital for about six months, while they did more tests. Finally the doctor came in with a verdict. He said we had two options. First, they would paralyse me from the waist down. And, if that didn’t work, they would amputate my legs.
“By that point, it wasn’t just my legs that were bad. When you are that sick, everything falls apart. I had chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, a neurological tremor in my left arm... The doctor said that if we didn’t follow his course of action, that I would be dead by the age of 16 – that my body just wouldn’t be able to take it.
“When the doctor left the room, I pulled my IV tube out and said, ‘Mum, take me home. If you leave me here, they will kill me’.”
A new approach
“The problem is that it’s not a disease, it’s a condition. And nobody seemed to know why I had got it. My parents tracked down a chiropractor in Arizona who had treated people with the same condition. My mother and I started spending winters in Arizona, so I could get intensive treatment and therapy. It worked well as the cold weather made my condition worse, so it was good to get out of the cold for a few months too.
“Things started improving slowly. When I was good-ish, I went to school. I was there for about 25 per cent of my classes… I’d normally start off strong in September and then, as the winter kicked in, I would drop off and then start going again in April.
“I went to seven different high schools, just doing courses wherever I could, whenever I could. I did a lot of summer school classes and did some online courses at Cyber High. I did my entire grade 10 social studies work in 10 days. When I felt healthy, I would stay up late and study.
“When I got to about 18 or 19, the pain eased off dramatically. They said it was to do with the fact that I had stopped growing.
The list of a lifetime
“Around this time, I came across a list in a drawer in my bedroom titled ’101 goals for my life’. At a young age, my parents got me into positive psychology. We went to see Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, speaking – we saw him a few times actually.
“But this particular time, he said to the audience to go home and write a list of 101 goals for your lifetime. It was November 15, 1995. I went home and I did it that night. I was 15. When I found it a few years later, I realised I had done some of the things on the list without really consciously meaning to.
“My parents have always had this thing – ‘If you think it, ink it.’ The process of writing it down kind of commits it to your subconscious and you get it done.
“Because I was so sick and spent a lot of time in bed, I had a lot of time to imagine what my life would be like ‘when’. But when I found the list, I realised that ‘when’ is actually ‘now’. I didn’t consciously decide to tick everything off the list, but I just seem to have done it almost subconsciously over the years. Every time I looked at the list again, I realised I had done a few more.
“There are times when I will make an effort to tick something off. I was in Europe last summer with my parents and I made my dad pull over on the side of the road so I could splash my feet in the Mediterranean, as that was one of the things on my list.
“There are some things I wrote on there as a 15-year-old that I probably wouldn’t put on there if I was writing the list now, at 37. For example, there is one about seeing the Ebola virus in a Level Four control suit under a microscope – that was because the film Outbreak had just come out and I was obsessed with it. I wouldn’t put that one a list now and I don’t think it is something I will ever tick off.
A choice to be happy
“I have always been a big Law of Attraction person, big on the ‘attitude of gratitude’. From a really young age, I’ve been an optimist. I’ve always naturally lived on the brighter side. At work, I’m known as Dr Giggles... I figure you may as well go through life being happy. Life can be rough, but it has beautiful moments.
“I love my birthday. It’s become more celebratory as I’ve got older. I try to make the most of every day and be as positive as I can. I am just finishing a master’s degree in positive psychology. I took the course for myself, but I might start running meditation, or mindfulness classes… tell people to write their list of 101 goals maybe.
“People talk about a bucket list, but I think that has a lot of connotations. It implies when you finish the list, you die. There are 101 things on my list and so far I have done 56 of them. I don’t want to die when I finish the list. I want to write another list!
“I think my 15-year-old self had every expectation that I would grow up and do these things... I think so.”