A twisted ankle that should have healed within weeks left Ailsa Lipscombe in constant pain and unable to walk for four years.
A decade later, the Victoria University music student has also lost most of her sight, but has not let her disabilities slow her down. On Monday night, she was one of only a handful of Kiwis to be awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study for a doctorate in the United States.
Lipscombe has overcome more hurdles than most Fulbright scholars, many of whom have gone on to run countries and win Nobel prizes.
In 2004, the 13-year-old tripped while waiting for a bus, and tore an ankle ligament. The injury should have healed quickly, but instead the pain spread and became more intense, to the point where she was no longer able to walk.
“My whole leg was bright purple and freezing cold. The swelling was so big you couldn’t tell there was toes and an ankle.”
It took doctors 10 months to diagnose complex regional pain syndrome, a non-curable chronic pain condition brought on by a seemingly minor injury. It was four years before Lipscombe could walk again and, before she got her service dog Connie a year ago, she still needed crutches to get around.
“Nearly the whole time I was at high school I was wheelchair-bound. I had to relearn how to walk with the pain.”
About four years ago, she also started losing her sight. She now has no peripheral vision and can see only about one and a half metres in front of her. She can still read but, without Connie’s help, risks tripping over kerbs and running into doors.
“I am just grateful it wasn’t my hearing,” she said.
The pain remains an almost constant background experience, like a burning sensation, with occasional sharp shocks shooting through her nervous system like an electric current.
Most of the time, she manages to put the pain to back of her mind. Daily physiotherapy exercises and medication to sleep help her keep on top of the pain, but attitude was also important, she said.
“You can let it control you, or you can control it.”
Lipscombe has just completed her masters at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, focusing on music and its connection with narrative and culture. She and Connie will move to the University of Chicago in September, where she expects her PhD will focus on the relationship between culture, music and film.
She will be in Chicago for at least five years but eventually she would like to return to teach in New Zealand.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been taught by amazing scholars and it would be lovely to come back and do the same for other New Zealand students.”
– Ben Heather