Laura was born to Beatrice and Leo Meddens on the island of Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles (formerly known as the Dutch West Indies) about 35 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea.
As a young girl, Laura's family moved to England where they lived in Damer Gardens in Henley-on-Thames, and she and her sister Myriam attended school there, and later in Ireland and the Netherlands. Laura has fond memories of the family's picnics in the English countryside and trips abroad.
Laura attended university in the Netherlands, and while studying, it was discovered she had micro-aneurysms in her eye during an eye examination, but she wasn't told of this at the time. It would later be discovered among documents in her medical file. It was the early stages of Diabetic Retinopathy.
This condition worsened while visiting Curaçao where both eyes were lasered in what should have been a routine treatment to stop tiny blood vessels from bleeding. Laura has a copy of a letter where the local doctor admits to his professors in the Netherlands that he had made what he characterized as a "stupid" mistake and wonders how different the outcome might have been if he had referred her to eye surgeons there sooner, instead of waiting to treat her after his vacation. He also thanks these professors for "standing by him", saying it will make a big difference.
Subsequent operations in the Netherlands helped to restore about 25 to 30% vision in both eyes with corrective lenses, but again, medical negligence would take a terrible toll on Laura. An anesthesiologist failed to note her diabetic condition and she almost died on the operating table. This carelessness cost her the sight in one eye, leaving it permanently disabled and significantly reduced it in the other, a horrible setback after the trauma of multiple operations to try to undo the original damage.
As Laura says, " This was utterly devastating to me, but after going through the natural phases of shock, fear, anger, grief and acceptance, I was determined not to crawl away and hide in a corner". Laura gives thanks to her mother Beatrice, and several friends, especially Alan & Jenny Waters for their support during this very difficult phase of her life.
Never one to feel sorry for herself, and never wanting to be pitied by others, Laura went on to have two children, Michael and Gabrielle, who are the lights of her life. Laura has always been a very hands-on mother, right down to changing diapers, and later, after the children started school, she balanced the demands of motherhood with the resumption of her university studies in Psychology via JAWS text reading/writing software on her computer, and starting sculpting in clay and throwing pottery.
Laura's children Michael and Gabrielle pictured with their grandfather Leo's plane.
Always a self-starter, Laura obtained the resources necessary to resume her studies by approaching the Vertegenwoordiging van Nederland in de Antillen (VNW - Dutch Government Representatives) which provided funding for a computer, specialized software and a 'talking' cd player. But the funds had to be directed through a local Foundation for the blind and visually impaired, Pro Bista, where she faced an unexplained six month delay, missed the start of her semester, and received only two floppy disks. The VNW had to intervene to finally obtain everything, contrary to the revisionist claims of Pro Bista's Director.
While her academic studies resumed, Laura soon grew tired of having to bother family and friends to get around everytime she wanted to break free of the social isolation her limited vision imposed on her. One of the things she missed the most after her vision was damaged, was the freedom of driving her car. That dependence on family and friends can be quite daunting for people who lose their sight after being relatively independent for most of their life.
Laura recently was approached in Curaçao by a woman who said her mother had recently lost her sight and felt ashamed that she was now what she considered to be a 'burden' on her family, even though the family felt otherwise. It was a feeling Laura could relate to very personally.
The opportunity to do something about it evolved after Laura saw an item on television about how guide dogs opened up new opportunities for independence for people with vision, hearing or mobility loss or impairment.
Laura again approached Pro Bista, but they weren't interested and didn't believe she could get a dog.
'Geleidehondenopleiding Ans L'abee' is a school for guide dogs in the Netherlands that help persons who are blind, visually or hearing impaired as well as those with balance or mobility difficulties. Its founders, Ans and Eveline, were the first people to help Laura try to achieve more independent mobility.
Ans L' Abee evaluated whether Laura was capable of working with a guide dog , and tried initially to get a guide dog for her, but, unfortunately because Laura was not a resident of the Netherlands and wasn't insured there, this wasn't possible. However, Ans put her in touch with the KNGF who then referred Laura to The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey in the United States.
Laura is very grateful for the help she received from Ans and Eveline and is happy to refer others to their fine school.
The Seeing Eye has been operating since 1929. What would subsequently transpire would significantly change Laura's life and her sense of independence and freedom of mobility. Getting out became a wonderful rediscovered experience. However, 'getting in' to many places normally sighted people go in Curaçao and even in Amsterdam, became quite a challenge as she and her guide dog Wagner were refused access to many places.
You can read more detail about Laura's training in Morristown, and her subsequent experiences with Wagner in Curaçao and the Netherlands, in the article The Seeing Eye asked her to author, here.
After a friend designed a website to be used as the online base for a TV documentary of Laura's experiences and to chronicle guide dog access issues around the world as an educational resource to lobby for access legislation in Curaçao and the Netherlands Antilles, Laura thought it could be a springboard to provide additional resources for disabled people in the region.
In February, 2008, The Laura And Wagner Foundation (LWF) was formed as a Curaçao-based non-profit Foundation to raise awareness about, and lobby for, access rights legislation for the disabled and their guide and assistance dogs. The Foundation's mandate has been expanded to include all disabilities because of the overwhelming response from people around the world.
These days, Laura commutes between Curaçao and Amsterdam as she tends to her children, administers the Foundation's projects, and partners in the additional development of the Foundation's ABLED® initiative, the first phase of which is being built out at www.Abled.com.
While Laura isn't one to seek out the spotlight and hates people making a fuss about her, she has learned from others that by having the courage to stand up and tell her story, she is inspiring many of her fellow islanders who have felt the same cultural shame and social isolation to also speak out.
The same applies to her speaking out about domestic violence. As shown in our Special Report on the Abuse of the Disabled, persons who are differently-abled face a much higher incidence of physical abuse.
The sad irony for Laura is that as she was losing what was left of her sight to the consequences of medical negligence and domestic violence, her beloved guide dog Wagner was diagnosed with Stage 3 B-Cell Lymphoma.
Following many chemotherapy treatments, and defying the survival odds, Wagner was accepted into a clinical trial being administered by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas in partnership with Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in College Station, Texas.
Wagner rallied for a time after two pre-emptive rounds of chemotherapy prior to the T-Cell infusions that used his own white cells to fight the cancer, but he also contracted erlichia (tick disease) while in Texas, despite having been on preventative medication and wearing an anti-tick collar.
This double-threat proved to be too heavy a load for his immune system, and Laura had to make the heartbreaking decision to put him to sleep on May 21, 2013.
Though 'Waggie' is gone, his spirit lives on in the campaign for access rights and in raising awareness about the fundamental equality and dignity differently-abled members of society shouldn't have to beg for.