Edwina O’Leary has determinedly overcome the challenge of long periods of ill-health forcing her to leave further education courses on several occasions to enjoy a productive and fulfilling career while pursuing her BA hons in English Language and Literature.
The 44-year-old Waterford native lives with spina bifida and arrested hydrocephalus and lymphedema, a vascular condition where her legs swell up.
Edwina has been working in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) for the past 17 years. It is a job she loves, and she says that she would not wish to work anywhere else.
“I never had a problem working in WIT; the only part of the job which had to be set up for me was that my desk had to be altered at the beginning to accommodate my wheelchair,” says Edwina.
“No adaptations had to be made for me and the building I am now working in has accessible toilets, so I have been lucky enough.
“I have been given a stool to put my feet up on as I have developed lymphedema which is a vascular condition where my legs swell up.
“This leaves my legs swollen and heavy and sometimes it makes it hard for me to transfer from my wheelchair. I am having my legs wrapped every week in tight bandages which helps reduce the swelling.”
While her hydrocephalus arrested when she was six months of age and she did not require surgery to insert a shunt, Edwina admits that she would have traits of hydrocephalus.
“My organisational abilities and timekeeping can be slightly off as is my sense of direction,” she says.
“I am the worst person to give directions; when someone asks me over the phone for directions to WIT, I tell them that they would be much better off looking up Google Maps!”
Edwina attended St Paul’s Secondary School in Waterford and after completing her Leaving Certificate examinations, she commenced a secretarial course.
“I had an accident with a hot water bottle when I roasted myself after boiling hot water leaked onto my legs,” she recalls.
“I had to leave the secretarial course in the middle of it as I was up and down to hospital in Cork every week for three months for treatment and I ended up having skin grafts onto my thighs.
“I still had work experience to do from the course which I did in Waterford Crystal and when the work experience came to an end I stayed on there on a Community Employment Scheme (CES) for a year-and-a-half.”
When her time at Waterford Crystal came to an end, Edwina decided to go back to college and took on an Access Course in Journalism in Ballyfermot College in Dublin.
However, ill-health once again halted Edwina’s pursuit of life-long learning when she was hospitalised due to kidney failure. This resulted in her having surgery to remove one of her kidneys and she was ‘out of action’ for two years.
When fully recovered, she commenced another CES and began a work placement in Waterford Museum of Treasures (now called the Viking Triangle).
“At that time, around 2000, there were five archaeological excavation sites in Waterford. My job was to catalogue all the artefacts such as bits of pottery etc. which were excavated and input them into the National Museum of Ireland’s database.
“I did that work for about five months and I really enjoyed it as I love history. Then for another six months, I worked on reception taking calls and organising school tours etc.,” she says.
After this work placement, Edwina commenced another secretarial course which she did not finish either, however, this time it was not due to ill-health. Her work placement from this course was in WIT, that was 17 years ago, and she has remained there ever since.
“A friend of my mother’s helped me to get a six-week placement working on the switchboard in WIT. I had only finished that and was considering what college course to do next, when three years later I was asked to come back to fill in for someone who had a bad accident,” she explains.
“Still there a year-and-a-half later, I benefitted from the ruling where Grade 3 workers in a position for a year-and-a-half had to be made permanent employees.”
A good number of years ago, Edwina began job sharing, working one week one, one week off which suited her as she always wanted to achieve a third level degree.
“I took on an English Language and Literature Degree with the Open University which was mainly an online course, so it was great to have the time to both work and study.
“It took me eight years to pass my degree – which was too long but I got there in the end! Third time lucky as they say !”
“I was so proud to go to Belfast last October for my graduation with my parents, my aunt, and my best friend, Dr Caroline Goldsmith.”
A neuropsychologist working in mental health, Dr Goldsmith wished to change career to work with physical disabilities and began working as a PA. She became Edwina’s PA and they began firm friends.
“Caroline figured out how my brain works and what was the best way for me to study. She helped me put structure on my work and it was great to have her support and encouragement,” says Edwina.
Edwina believes that the support she has received from many quarters assisted her greatly in having the determination to overcome the challenges that her periods of ill-health and setbacks in completing education presented.
Obtaining her degree challenged Edwina to seek work where she could put her academic qualification to use and she applied for an administrative position in WIT’s School of Humanities.
“I got the administration position in the School of Languages, Tourism, and Hospitality working for the Director carrying out duties such as keeping track of his diary and taking minutes of meetings,” she says.
“I really enjoy the administrative work however, I am currently filling in on the switchboard again for someone who is on leave. I hope to get back to the School of Languages, Tourism and Hospitality shortly.”
Originally from Kilmeaden, Edwina is the daughter of Eileen and John O’Leary – he is the currently Deputy Mayor of Waterford. She has a younger brother who is married with three small children who keep her occupied (and broke!)
“I have always had great family support in everything I did. They were always there to help me but also to push me along and give me a kick to keep going when I needed it.”
Two years she got her own apartment, run by Cheshire Ireland in Waterford City.
“We have always been a fairly outgoing family so working with the public was not something I shied away from and in education you meet people from all walks of life all with all sorts of stories,” says Edwina
“I love the freedom of having my own place to live while having the support of someone to help me for a few hours a day in the evening or night time.
“This is ideal as I now work five mornings a week, I have time in the afternoon to do my own thing, either going to the library or to the cinema - my two passions.”