“When I was 17, I committed suicide. I succeeded for 17 minutes.”
Thus begins Perkins senior Ashley Purdy’s podcast, “When The Lights Went Out,” an 11-minute examination of her journey from being a sighted Westfield (MA) High School student in 2016 to graduating from Perkins School for the Blind in June 2020.
The podcast received an honorable mention in this year’s NPR Student Podcast Challenge.
NPR received more than 2,200 entries from 46 states and the District of Columbia. Of those, 215 were designated as honorable mention recipients.
Ashley’s podcast starts with that harrowing introduction of how she attempted to end her life on Nov. 1, 2016. At 17, she felt as if everything in her life was “drowning” her and she had no one to talk to about any of it. After her mother found her unconscious, emergency medical technicians were able to revive her.
But she had suffered an anoxic injury to her brain. When she came out of her coma around Thanksgiving, she was blind, unable to walk and unable to talk.
Interestingly, when Ashley emerged from her coma, “I didn’t realize I was blind. I was seeing things, people and places, that I thought were confusing, but I didn’t understand it was all in my head. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t talk or move. I knew something was not right, but I didn’t know what had happened.”
In fact, it wasn’t until about a month later, when she was in a different facility, that she heard two clinicians talking to each other about her blindness that she realized she had lost her vision. Her official diagnosis is Cortical / Cerebral Visual Impairment (CVI), a term used to describe visual impairment that occurs due to brain injury.
With CVI, the eyes are able to see, but the brain is not interpreting what is being seen.
“I can see light and dark shadows,” she explains. “On really good days, I can see colors and faces. It’s as if someone has put a pixelation filter over my eyes.”
How Ashley came to Perkins
Over the next 10 months, Ashley would be admitted to different hospitals and rehab facilities for treatment, including Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. It was there that Perkins School for the Blind was first brought up to Ashley and her family.
“At first I thought it wouldn’t be right for me, but then Perkins interviewed me, and I thought, ‘I should go.’ I had a lot of questions, like, how blind people do things, and they had a lot of the answers I was looking for. In June 2017 I visited the campus and met the teachers and I thought, ‘This is cool. I can do this.’ ”
Ashley enrolled at Perkins in September 2017.
Ashley’s podcast for the NPR competition, done in conjunction with her media class taught by Jeff Migliozzi, includes her mother and much of her Perkins support team: physical therapist Lori McCall, occupational therapist Sue Shannon, orientation and mobility instructor Jennifer Siff, and clinical social worker and case manager Jennifer Potter.
“Me today as opposed to me three years ago, I’m a lot better mental health-wise,” she says on the podcast. “Before I did what I did I didn’t really know who I could go to or who my supports were, whereas now I know who my supports are, and I can pick them out of a crowd.”
Working to help other students tell their stories
For Migliozzi, what Ashley has given back to the Perkins community in her time there is just as important as how she has benefitted.
“When Ashley says in her podcast that ‘She can pick out her supports in a crowd’ that’s true; it is also true that Ashley is a great support to many of her peers,” he says.
“She is especially good with our students who have a harder time expressing themselves. We have had parents who wanted to hire Ashley after witnessing her in the Cottage with their children. At Perkins, we talk a lot about interdependence, the idea that we in society are all supports for each other, disabled or not. That’s how the world works. Ashley exemplifies this concept as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with. She does not only give voice to her story, she works to see that every student has an opportunity to tell theirs.
As Ashley tells it, since she was a young child she has been a people person. “If I was in the grocery store and saw an old person, I would ask them if they wanted help. When I babysat for little kids, I would always play with them. Even kids my own age, they always listened to me. It’s who I’ve always been, and Perkins gave me the opportunity to become that person again.”
At Perkins, she has felt especially drawn to the students who are nonverbal, although Ashley takes some issue with that description: “You just have to take the time to learn how they ‘talk,” she says. “I’ve learned that if you take time out of your day to get to know a person, you can have a conversation with anyone.”
In the podcast, Ashley’s mother recalls finding her unconscious daughter on Nov. 1, 2016, and calling 911. She says in the aftermath, Ashley “had to start over. It was as if she was being born all over again, but this time in a teenager’s body. She had to learn to talk, to walk, to eat, to use the bathroom, and to deal with the reality of what had happened to her.
“The doctors told me at best she would be a vegetable. I did not think I would ever have my Ashley back.”
“I can make my life whatever I want it to be”
On June 19, 2020, at the age of 21, Ashley Purdy will graduate from Perkins School for the Blind. In a virtual commencement brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, she will deliver the graduation address to her fellow students. Engaged to Perkins graduate Jonah LeDuc, she will look for an apartment, investigate getting a service dog, research becoming a motivational speaker, and think about what’s next in her life.
“It’s exciting because I can make my life whatever I want it to be,” she says. “It’s scary because I don’t know what will happen next. I made amazing friends at Perkins. My family is good. My life’s going pretty good.”
Listen to Ashley’s podcast here: SoundCloud.com/gcstpsfb/When-The-Lights-Went-Out-Final-5120