As a migraine sufferer, Audrey Walters is used to debilitating pain. However, when a daily throbbing headache persisted for nearly four weeks in March 2010, she sensed something might be seriously wrong. Unable to get out of bed many days, Walters’ close friend, Keith Merith, convinced her to seek medical attention.
He accompanied her to a local hospital and insisted that medical personnel perform a computer tomography (CT) scan. The diagnostic tests revealed a large brain tumour and it took neurosurgeons nearly nine hours to perform surgery.
“The chief surgeon at Toronto Western told me it was the largest tumour he had seen in his 25 years doing these kinds of operations,” said Merith. “He said the tumour was the size of a small orange encroaching on part of the brain and she really did not have much time left. She was in grave condition when she arrived at the hospital.”
Though the surgery to remove the non-cancerous tumour was successful, Walters is facing serious long-term effects.
While there are no visible scars and she may seem normal when out in public, Walters is severely restricted. She suffers from fatigue, disorientation and memory loss.
Last week, Walters was one of 11 exceptional women recognized at the Black Business & Professional Association’s (BBPA) Women of Honour Awards. She eloquently accepted the honour, but cannot recall what she said in her recognition speech.
“This happens all the time,” said Merith, who closely monitors Walters. “She will say something to you now and then 10 minutes later forget what it is she told you. She’s capable of pulling herself together, but she suffers. Once she gets off that public platform, she goes into severe fatigue, memory loss sets in and she can hardly get out of bed to make herself a meal. She just crashes after any strenuous event that’s normal to most of us.”
Because of disorientation, Walters also has to rely on taxis or friends for transportation.
“It’s a struggle for me,” admits Walters, who has been confined mainly to her residence since the surgery. “I am just happy to be breathing and I want to thank the many people, including family members, who have supported me.”
Because of failing health, Walters quit as BBPA president four years ago. She replaced Hugh Graham as the organization’s head in October 2006 after joining a year earlier and serving as vice-president.
A graduate of Westview Centennial Collegiate and York University, she also had to scuttle plans to represent the Conservative Party in York West in the last federal elections. She was in the process of putting together a campaign team when she became ill.
Life has been extremely challenging for Walters in the last five years.
Her brother, Globe & Mail copy editor, Talbert Walters, succumbed to spinal cancer in January 2008 and her mother – who had Parkinson’s disease – died in November 2009.
“It was very, very hard watching my mother deteriorate,” said Walters, who worked in the travel industry as an accounts/operations manager and was a co-founder of the Jane-Finch Concerned Citizens Association. “I really went through a lot leading up to my illness.”
She said the BBPA honour is very significant.
“I was in tears when I was told I was going to be a recipient,” said Walters. “This organization is very close to me and I regretted having to leave as president without fulfilling some of the goals I had for it.”
CTV reporter/producer, Karlene Nation, who was bestowed with a Woman of Honour Award, is also a brain tumor survivor.
Nearly 15 years ago, she was diagnosed with a pituitary brain tumour after suffering a maddening headache for five days. Though the surgery was successful, Nation was left with permanent double vision and no peripheral eyesight.
“This experience has made me very strong,” said Nation, who migrated from Jamaica in 1976 as a 17-year-old single mother, completed high school and worked as a night waitress to put herself through the University of Toronto, where she graduated three decades ago with a political science degree.
“I was always a strong person with inner strength, but this experience has shown me that I can survive just about anything. Life often throws us curves and we have to find a way to deal with these challenges.”
Unlike Walters, Nation was able to return to work and pursue a political career after her brain tumor surgery.
The CTV diversity producer unsuccessfully ran for city council in Trinity-Spadina in the 2010 municipal elections and as a Conservative Party candidate in York West in the last provincial elections two years ago.