In 1998 I started assessing people who, as a result of a medical condition (illness or injury), have become incapacitated to some extent.  These medical conditions have ranged from what could be considered relatively minor ailments such as bunions and dislocated fingers, to complaints of fatigue and headaches, to catastrophic life events such as amputations, spinal injuries and brain trauma. At an increasingly alarming rate, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are among the list of medical conditions I see regularly.  I have assessed more than three thousand people over the years. The purpose of these assessments has always been to determine how functional the person is, given their medical condition. This is typically done with an emphasis on their work capacity.  Known as functional capacity evaluations (FCE) among us Occupational Therapists, these assessments are undergone for life insurers, attorneys and employers looking at how best to accommodate or compensate working people.

Today I’d like to share a story of one such person referred to me by a life insurer in 2014… her name is Ursula T, and this story is being told with her permission.

Ursula suffered a catastrophic stroke in 2012, resulting in a dense left-sided hemiplegia, as well as more subtle cognitive and psychological sequelae.  She spent two weeks in ICU, followed by four months at a rehabilitation facility.  To put this into perspective, surviving a stroke of this nature is highly unlikely, and would be fatal to most.  She was only 39 years old at the time, married with a young daughter, and had just opened her own business – a beauty salon / spa within an office complex where she employed six people. In less than a year, she had amassed a clientele of more than seven hundred people.  Despite her marriage being on the rocks before the stroke, she was otherwise a happy and successful person.

When I saw Ursula in 2014, her husband had filed for divorce, citing her “disability” as the final straw in an already volatile relationship. Their daughter was living with him while she had moved in with her mother where they shared a small, two-bedroom townhouse.  She had been forced to close her business in 2013 and retrench her employees, who had been unsuccessful in running the business in her absence.  Ursula had then tried to find alternative employment using her extensive experience in the sales industry as her strength, but this too failed, due to a combination of persistent physical, cognitive and psychological difficulties.  She had then tried to do a photoshoot for a friend, but she could not remember how to operate the camera.  She was in an extremely fragile emotional state and the few hours that I spent with her were marked by several episodes of tearfulness and expressions of hopelessness.

Move along seven years and where is she now?  Well, she is currently living independently and running a successful photographic studio on a plot in Johannesburg’s northern suburb of Chartwell.  She is in a relationship and she has regular contact with her daughter who is now 15 years old, still living with her father.  Her studio is small and comfortable… no worries about big, intimidating lights and flashes as she makes use of natural light through big glass doors.  She sits on an office chair with wheels during the shoot, which she can move around with her right leg / foot, and she operates the hand-held camera entirely with her right hand.

When I arrived, I had the pleasure of being met outside by her 2 loving pups, Spartacus and Athena.  I took my beloved Franki along for moral support (a convenient excuse… I take her everywhere I can!), and from the moment we arrived, Spartacus could not take his eyes off her!

Ursula did not make her way outside to meet me as she is still quite slow on her feet, but a very warm welcome awaited me when I entered the studio.   A coffee, some chit chat about the past 7 years and about my pending session, and it was off to the make-up and hair salon behind the studio, which doubles up as a dressing room because obviously you can’t wear the same outfit for every shot!

Merichen does the beautifying and she is just as warm and friendly as Ursula.  They both had to reassure me a bit as this was the first time I was posing for the camera so formally. Not only were they successful in doing this, but I had great fun too!  And so did Franki, once she realized that Spartacus’ attention was out of pure love at first sight!

After the session, the wait is approximately one week before a second visit to the studio is scheduled to view the results and choose a limited number from Ursula’s selection of the most beautiful shots.  Some more chit chat, a coffee to ease the tension of seeing the pictures (a glass of wine is also offered if this is your preference), and then the big reveal!  These are the pictures that you will soon see on my upgraded website, including the two above of the gorgeous Franki, and me adoring her to the ends of the earth.

Ursula photography

What a wonderful experience this was, and I applaud you Ursula for thriving under the adversity that you have faced over the past nine years. You inspire me, and you are an example of what can be achieved through sheer determination and hard work.  Keep it up beautiful woman!

I am sure your business and your life are going to continue to go from strength to strength.  And thank you for the pics…you are an expert in your field, and have demonstrated such talent in bringing the best out of me, while avoiding making me into something that I am not.  I can’t wait for another excuse to visit, even if it’s just for my own self-pampering. 😊

Take care everyone.

Your partner in mental health matters in the workplace,


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