Barbara de Catanzaro – “Coming to Be – Me!”

By Richard Haskell

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Barbara de Catanzaro


The First 27 Years

Animals have always held a special place for Ottawa native and ABI survivor Barbara de Catanzaro. She began with an aquarium filed with guppies and Tetras. It wasn’t long before she had proven her capabilities of looking after the tiny aquatic creatures, and for her sixth birthday she was rewarded with a trip to the local humane society, where she was allowed to bring home a “mutt” she named Blackie.  By the time she was 10, her parents had acquired a “hobby” farm near Woodlawn, Ont., 40 km west of Ottawa, providing greater roaming space for other four-footed companions, including “Smokey”, a Shepherd, and “Barney”, a Springer Spaniel-Shepherd mix. There was also a bevy of farm cats. Barbara loved them all.

She began her post-secondary education at the University of Guelph, where she embarked upon a degree in science, agriculture and economics. After stints at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, she returned to Guelph to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. Further studies at Guelph resulted in a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Hotel and Food Administration ­- and from then on, her career in restaurant and hotel management took her to different parts of the world, including Montréal, to cities in Germany, and finally to England, where she worked for the prestigious Trusthouse Forte organization in Bath and later in Boxhill, Surrey.

 The Accident

After three years in Europe, Barbara decided to return home to Canada – succumbing to her “nesting instincts.” Her parents were no longer living together by that time,  so she decided to “head east” to the Maritimes, to visit a girl who had attended her high school and whose parents had retired to Gagetown, N.B. Through perusing the “rides available” ads in the local paper, she found someone who was conveniently heading in that direction in late December. Unknown to her, this would be a fateful journey, one which would alter her life forever.  Five days before Christmas, she and the driver were travelling on the Trans-Canada Highway near Petitcodiac, N.B. in a 1998 Oldsmobile when the car was hit head on by a drunk driver. The vehicle was totalled, and tragically, the driver of the car she was in was killed.

Rehabilitation – one step at a time

Miraculously, Barbara survived, but not without sustaining considerable trauma. She had suffered a “closed brain Injury”, one resulting from an external impact that doesn’t include a break in the skull. Closed head injuries usually involve swelling or bleeding within the skull, which may in turn lead to brain damage. She also had a Mylar fracture involving the upper left cheek and eye socket, causing the displacement of her left eye, resulting in a life-time of double vision requiring special glasses. Barbara was taken to a hospital in Fredericton   – the only one in the area at the time treating closed head injuries. There she remained in a coma for nine days, but it was three months before she was released. Upon regaining consciousness, she remembers feeling puzzlement as she looked out the window and wondered where she was.   She remembers her first attempts at walking and being very discouraged at having to think hard about putting her feet in motion. But she rationalized: “I’m here in public, don’t cry about it, just DO IT!”

By February, she was able to travel back to Ottawa, but upon her arrival, it was discovered all the beds in the hospital designated to rehabilitate brain injury survivors were filled. Barbara was fortunate that her mother was a registered nurse. Rather than being sent to a different facility, Barbara was taken to the family farm. There, she was treated by means of an in-home rehabilitation program in which she was visited by physio-’, speech-, and occupational- therapists on a weekly basis.

“Having a one-on-one relationship with my therapists and not having to wait for therapies allowed me to heal and begin the process of re-filing the emptied drawers of my brain’s ‘Filing-Cabinet-of-Knowledge’,” she says.  “I do not believe I lost any marbles but simply had them re-arranged.”

Learning to walk and talk again took  eight months, from  February to the following  September. Barbara discontinued speech and occupational therapy first, but continued on with physiotherapy for considerably longer. According to her, she trained with the zeal of an Olympic athlete – she was determined to make a recovery, and not be forced to “walk like a drunk.”

“I swore never again to take my body, and my ability to walk and talk, for granted,” she reflected at the time.

Barbara did learn to walk and talk again, and although her short-term memory suffered, her long-term memory stayed intact.

Life Since Then

By September, 1991, Barbara was able to move into her own apartment in Ottawa’s west end, where she began the long process of putting her life back together. A big plus was having parents and supportive friends close at hand who were able to guide her during this early stage of her new life.  It wasn’t long before she was directing her energy and positive outlook into a variety of volunteer activities with numerous organizations. Since 1994, she’s been involved with the Brain Injury Mentoring Program at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Ottawa, where she has offered her assistance to the Physiotherapy Department, demonstrating what she had learned herself in physiology and rehabilitation. For four years, she was a physiotherapy assistant with Neurogym Technologies Inc, where she volunteered her skills as a “Motion Analysis Specialist” and for six years, she also gave her time as a caregiver at the Elizabeth Bruyère Health Centre.

Among the most interesting – and most recent – of her endeavours are those with Windreach Farm, where she donates her time as a self-proclaimed “farm- hand”. Located in Ashburn, Ont., Windreach was founded by cerebral palsy survivor Sandy Mitchell in 1989, and was originally set up to accommodate the needs of those with a wide variety of disabilities. Having spent many of her formative years on a farm , it seemed a natural step for Barbara to offer her services to such a worthwhile undertaking – and it’s also her good fortune that the property is only a 20 minute drive from  home. Thus far, her duties there have involved the training of animals, including what she refers to as “The Cuddly Bunny Project.”  In this capacity, she is currently “taming” six rabbits with the ultimate goal that they grow better accustomed to being handled by humans. All her observations are being carefully logged in a scientific manner. Barbara is also involved in sheep-herd training– a skill not as easy as it sounds, for among other things, it involves gaining the confidence of the sheep-dog, a Puli named “Obee.” Barbara is currently contemplating applying for a paid position with Windreach, and has a long-term goal of becoming a certified animal behaviourist.

Restaurant and hotel manager, ABI survivor and animal therapist – Barbara de Catanzaro has worn many hats over the course of her lifetime.  At this point, it would seem that her life has come full circle, having spent several of her formative years on a farm, to now helping out at Windreach. She proudly claims:

You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”

She has nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to be given a second chance, and for the many friendships she’s made through BIST. Yet she disagrees with the label “disabled persons,” far greatly preferring the designation of “people of different abilities.” Her positive attitude and forward thinking have allowed her to accomplish much in the last 22 years – and there’s still more to come.

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