A member of a National Championship equestrian team and a college junior majoring in psychology living independently three hours away from her family, Sara Claudia Tillman of Carrollton, Ga., was confident, focused and ready to take on the world. While she was surrounded by friends and enjoying college life, Sara Claudia was plagued by recurring bouts of tonsillitis and had been for most of her life. At the end of the school year, she decided to have a routine, outpatient tonsillectomy. What should have been a fairly easy recovery from a common surgery turned into an event that changed the trajectory of the young woman’s life.
On May 5, 2015, Sara Claudia’s mother, Sally, slept in her daughter’s bed so that she would be close by if Sara Claudia needed assistance with anything as the anesthesia wore off. Sometime in the middle of the night, Sally tried to wake her daughter in order to give her water to moisten her throat. Sara Claudia was unresponsive. An ambulance was called; the young woman was taken to a local hospital and intubated. Soon, she was transferred to Emory University Hospital, still unresponsive.
Pepper Stubblefield listens as Tillman reads from a popular children’s book in Braille. (SA photo by Shannon Courington).
After nearly five days at Emory, she began to regain consciousness and realized that she could not see. Soon after, she also realized that she had lost hearing in her left ear. “I never had a panicky moment. I credit my foundation. I was raised to turn to God.” Sally Tillman verifies her daughter’s unexplainable peace throughout the initial uncertain days, during many treatments, and in learning how to become independent again. “She’s amazing. She is inspiring and she does not give herself enough credit.”
Indeed, the young woman speaking at First Baptist Church in Jackson on July 16, seemed to be the epitome of poise, peace and perseverance. She spoke of her losses quite frankly, and she spoke of her triumphs freely. Not to be deterred from her goals, Sara Claudia began planning to return to school. Prior to this, she would begin working with a mobility trainer in order to relearn basic skills to help her function safely in her home and in the community as a visually impaired person.
An orientation and mobility specialist assisted Sara Claudia as she learned to use a mobility cane to navigate from her dorm room to her class rooms at Berry College in Rome, Ga. While learning this, she was also learning to read Braille, to use technology for visually impaired individuals, and to operate her computer and her phone. “Learning the technology was the most frustrating,” Sara Claudia admitted.
Ironically, Sara Claudia’s father is an eye doctor who continues to research various treatments for his daughter. Before she returned to school, the Tillmans spent three weeks in China as Sara Claudia underwent treatment in hopes of returned sight. The treatments did not yield immediate results; even so, Sara Claudia remained adamant that she return to school.
In January 2006, just eight months after the life-altering event, Tillman returned to campus. She was independent, but extremely isolated. “Most of my friends didn’t know how to react. Thankfully, I found a Prayer and Share group for women and I met new friends.”
In the midst of meeting new people and learning how to be a student again, Tillman also flew alone for the first time when she traveled to Michigan for comprehensive mobility training. Here, Tillman learned to use tactile maps and her memory for navigating the unfamiliar streets.
A defining moment in Tillman’s resiliency was her older sister’s wedding on May 7, 2016, just over a year out from her near fatal surgery. While she had accomplished so many things in the 12-month period, Sara Claudia longed to see her sister, Beth, walk down the aisle. “It was a turning point. I wanted to see her, but more than that, I wanted everyone to be happy and to enjoy the day. I had to decide if I wanted to be sad or if I wanted to enjoy this time with my family.” Tillman stated that she relies on her other senses to experience events to the fullest of her ability.
Tillman and her family went to Germany for another treatment and then to Florida for more. Sara Claudia soon decided that the treatments were overtaking her life. Her parents respected her decision to continue her education. She changed her major to special education and returned to Carrollton to attend University of West Georgia. Here, Tillman moved into her first apartment and learned to cook and do laundry. A current senior at UWG, Tillman finished her student teaching last semester .
“Student teaching was a learning experience for everyone involved. It took a lot of ingenuity and creativity on my part because it takes so much to do every single thing.” Tillman referred to the stringent, timeconsuming process of labeling everything in Braille and the time required to write lesson plans using assistive technology. Another lesson that Sara Claudia had to learn was to ask for help. Although she is fiercely independent, she learned to ask her family and friends for help, but she also deepened her prayer life. “I have to continually ask God for help. He has given me this peace from the beginning and I want to always remember that.”
Sara Claudia Tillman looks forward to becoming an educator and believes that her student teaching was beneficial not only to her, but to her students. “I’d like to think that when they saw me teaching, they saw hope for themselves to overcome and succeed.” Tillman certainly has empathy for her future pupils because of her own experiences.
With a maturity and insight that most young people often lack, Tillman chooses to reflect on what she has gained since May 5, 2015; rather than what she lost. Discernment, deeper relationships and determination are a few of the acquisitions she has made. Sara Claudia says that her relationship with God changed, also. “He is my foundation. I knew all about Him prior to becoming visually impaired, but when this happened, I began to truly know Him.” Tillman also does not let the fact that modern medicine has not been able to pinpoint a cause for her losses concern her. It is only her optic nerves that are damaged.
While Tillman continues to achieve and look forward to her future, she laments the friends who did not know how to react to her sudden impairments. “All I needed was for them to treat me the same,” Tillman shrugged. She encouraged those attending the service to relax, ask questions, and get rid of the awkwardness that they may feel when in the presence of a visually impaired person or anyone with any type of a disability. “If you are an old friend, treat me like you used to. If you are a new friend, get to know me. I am so much more than my disability.”
Indeed, she is. She is a homeowner, who has photographs hanging on her walls, just like any seeing person would have. Hers are labeled in Braille so that when she touches them, she can remember the events and people in the photograph. She is a future educator, following in her mother’s footsteps, but blazing her own trail in special education. She is a warrior, intent on destroying the stigma and awkwardness that accompanies perceived disabilities.
“Through all this, I feel that I have been given a message to share, a message of hope. Don’t give up whatever the situation. Turn to God. Seek His will. Take one day at a time.”
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Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.