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AARP Foundation Women's Scholarhip Program

Developing New Strengths in Midlife

Keri Douglass: 2010 Scholarship Recipient

In 2002, Keri Douglass says, “I was at the top of my game.” The Waldorf, MD resident was a successful masseuse, extolled by her many clients for her contributions to their health and well-being. After her two kids left for high school each morning, she walked to work, looking forward to helping even more people ease their stress and pain.

Then one day she unplugged an electric cooker from a strip cord at work, not noticing that the counter it sat on was wet. She got a shock, but she didn’t think much about it and went right back to work.  The next morning, she was paralyzed from the waist down.

The paralysis didn’t last – it just came and went. “Sometimes I’d be driving and my leg would just refuse to move and I’d have to pull over until the feeling came back. I loved my work and I tried to continue, going from full time to part time, but that didn’t work very well, either. Many days I’d deal with just a couple of clients and then the next day not be able to move,” she says.

But the hardest part for Keri wasn’t the off- and- on paralysis – it was getting a diagnosis and finding out what was going on in her body.  For the next 18 months, she continued to work more or less full time, but it was increasingly difficult for her to keep up the pace.

By the time the doctors figured out that the shock had caused a brain injury and that Keri also had fibromyalgia, she says, “I wasn’t that surprised. I’d been trained to understand how the body moved and worked. I knew I was going to have to put my hands up and say ‘enough.’ In actuality, though, lots of times I couldn’t lift one of my hands,” she says.

Once her brain injury was diagnosed, Keri was sent to the Maryland Department of Rehabilitation for counseling and physical therapy.  “I was way too young and too active to retire – I was only 45,” she says. “I needed to find something else I could do.”  She took a battery of tests. Keri had thought she wanted to go into marketing and sales, but after viewing the test results, an occupational counselor convinced her otherwise.

“She said to me, Honey, you’ve got it all wrong.  You don’t want to sell things. What I’m seeing in these test results is a remarkably talented artist,’” Keri says. “So she took me off the business track and led me to the creative track instead.  I am so grateful to her!”

From childhood, Keri had loved photography. “Capturing and seizing the moment was always easy for me, and then my career in health and wellness really helped me understand the movement in photography,” she says.  “I found myself turning back to it after my brain injury, and eventually people started hiring me to take pictures and shoot videos. I was so lucky, because I could rest between assignments – I didn’t have to work every day.”

Thirty years after she had dropped out of college in 1978, Keri went back, this time to the College of Southern Maryland.  “I started small.  I had to stay very close to the counselor to understand not just being disabled, but being an older person going back to school,” she says.  She learned how to use a computer, but since her vision is somewhat impaired and she is unable to multitask, she also uses headphones to shut out the noise and a lighter screen to see more clearly.

Next: Keri's biggest challenge >>

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