The beginning

I am the third child in a family of four, growing up with my mum, dad, two older brothers and younger sister. We are a close-knit loving family who support each other and strive to succeed.

I went to Ashburton Borough School in New Zealand for my primary years and then headed to St Margaret’s College in Christchurch in 2009 to start my high-school years. St Margaret’s provided me with wonderful opportunities both sporting wise and academically.

It was daunting experience leaving the safety and security of home at the age of 13. I embraced the community and made many life-long friends. I loved the challenge of a larger sporting arena and a diverse academic curriculum that St Margaret’s offered.

I was excelling all areas, when this all fell apart. The life that I knew underwent a drastic change.

Looking back, this was a huge crossroads for me. Before getting sick, I thought I would have turned right, instead I unknowingly took a sharp left.

It all started in June 2010 when I became unwell with what I thought was the flu, playing in the South Island secondary schools netball tournament. I was captain of the St Margaret’s Year 10 A team, with the aim to win the tournament as defending champions.

I didn't think much of it initially, and I was determined to continue playing. We made it into the final, and I knew in myself I couldn’t play a full game, so instead I saved up to go on for the last half.

To be honest, I don't have much memory of this. I felt so so unwell, but pushed through to help our team win for the second year in a row.

Hazel today

Returning home, my extremely high temperature and sore throat continued to get worse, and, a week later, led to fears that I had meningitis. I was rushed to hospital.

I spent a night in hospital, and the next night I turned into a very different Hazel from the girl that my family knew.

It was evident something very serious was going on. I was rushed to the city hospital. The virus had travelled through my membranes and into my brain. The doctors told my family I had a very severe case of encephalitis.

This is a very debilitating and life-threatening illness, which causes the brain to swell; many people do not survive the illness. I was in hospital for three weeks, where I was kept a close eye on. I had lots of tests, was fed through a tube, and had anti-viral drugs pumped through my veins.

I have very minimal memory of my time in hospital. I didn't understand the grief my friends, family and community were going through.

The hardest part at this time was more for my friends and family seeing me change as a person, and being told I may never be the Hazel you used to know again. I was also told I may not ever return to the sporting field.

Recovery

The swelling of my brain was very significant, so concentration and fatigue played a huge role on my recovery.

The neurologist said I would not be back at school before the end of the year. Mum and Dad didn’t believe him but how right he was.

Returning home, I can’t really describe how I felt. I didn’t ask any questions about what I had been through in the last month, I didn’t want to try and understand it or believe it. I basically showed no emotion. I would wake up and sleep on the couch. Every day I would try to achieve something new such as walking around the garden with Mum or putting one piece of a jigsaw puzzle together.

This would exhaust me for the rest of the day. I was very sensitive to light and noise, and wasn't keen on travelling in the car. My brain had had a very big assault, and it was taking a long time to settle.

As I slowly started to get better, I was provided with one-on-one schooling. My teacher Annie visited me at home once a week. This was where I started showing emotion and the reality of my illness became apparent.

I started to realise what I had lost. I had to re-learn many things, including walking in a straight line, my times tables, comprehending conversations, books and television programmes.

So many things that I had done everyday without having to think about them became a huge burden on my brain, and used an awful lot of energy. Everyday things that I had done with ease before my illness, became a big deal and wore me out.

My family were invaluable during this time. They were so strong and very patient with me - especially my Mum who had to have a lot of time off work to look after me. Our close circle of friends and the business community that my Mum and Dad work in were really supportive. We are grateful to be part of a small community who cared for and comforted those closest to me.

I eventually went back to school where I was also well supported. During this time, I made weekly visits to a local brain injury unit. Here I was assessed and also put on some beneficial medication to help with my cognitive processing. I still take this today.

While my friends were sitting exams, Mum contacted the Make A Wish Foundation, to give me something to look forward to.

Make A Wish

We never dreamed the change this could have made in my life.

The Make A Wish Foundation grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy. Receiving a phone call from The Make A Wish Foundation in late 2012 was the start of the most amazing journey for me.

I was granted my dream wish, which was to meet highly regarded New Zealander, the fashion designer Karen Walker.

I chose this as my wish, as I wanted to be treated to something that money couldn’t buy. This illness had changed my life for the worst, and this wish has changed it for the better. My wish exceeded all expectations.

The day of my wish was more than I ever could have imagined. It was all about me and I was treated. The Make A Wish team were so energetic and inviting and really interested in me as a person.

Dad, Mum and I were flown up to Auckland. We were picked up in a limousine and taken to Karen Walker’s workshop to meet her. It was a privilege entering her workshop as I understood it was a private part to her business. The ultimate dream was to meet Karen personally.

I have vivid memories of walking up to her office and through the doors to where her and Mikhail, her husband, were working away. We went for a tour around her workshop and then sat down to talk. There was so much to talk about.

She was so warm, inspiring, motivating and a real character. She shared with me many life lessons, one of which I use in my everyday life:

Never be afraid to ask, the worst thing that can happen is someone says no.

We all enjoyed each other’s company, and it was a shame when we had to say what we thought was goodbye.

From Karen’s workshop, we headed to her store in Newmarket. The Karen Walker girls took me under their wing and in no time I was dressed in the Karen Walker label and behind the counter making sales.

I was utterly spoiled by the Make A Wish Foundation. They kindly gave me $500 to spend at Karen Walker's store. This allowed me to spend time in the store finding an outfit or two which was so much fun. I had the biggest smile on my face all day. My wish day was such an experience and a memory that stays close to my heart.

I was so grateful to the Make A Wish Foundation for making this incredible day possible, and little did I know that this was just the beginning of something life-changing for me.

Karen is now my mentor. She inspires and guides me with my art and photography, and has introduced me to some of the world’s best photographers. Having Karen as my mentor pushes me every day to be the best I can be.

READ - Hazel meets Karen

Today

I have just celebrated my eight-year anniversary.

It’s hard to believe how fast the eight years have gone, and to look back and see what I have achieved feels pretty amazing.

I haven’t let my brain injury beat me. I have had to face some very strenuous obstacles in the last eight years, and there are days where I am still facing new ones.

Here I am now pushing to be the best I can be every day. I am a freelance photographer, striving to specialise in architectural photography. I have established my own business - The Photo Shop. I’m surrounded by a great community in my home town and I am succeeding.

It's thanks to the Make A Wish Foundation and my mentor Karen Walker that I am where I am today.

I am more than my brain injury. I am a business owner, a leader, an achiever, a volunteer, a sister, a granddaughter, a daughter.

I am a survivor.

I am leaving you today with a quote by Marilyn Monroe:

I believe that everything happens for a reason, people change so you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they're right, and sometimes, good things fall apart so better things fall together.

 To see Hazel's photography, visit her website and Instagram