UP until the age of 15, Michelle Cowan, from Tamlaght, was just another healthy and happy teenager about to sit her GCSEs.
Then, in a devastating turn of events in 1998, Shelley, as she is widely known, was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (severe ME), which resulted in her health rapidly deteriorating.
She spent over 10 months in hospital before her family brought her home to care for her.
Left with constant pain, she was bed-bound and tube-fed for 12 years and needed help with all aspects of daily living, including personal care.
She also lost her eyesight and, in a further blow, her memories of the years prior to the onset of her illness all but disappeared.
Now aged 34, and having shown signs of improvement over the last six years, Shelley has been a member of the Fermanagh Brightstarz drama group since last September.
The inspirational young woman will take to the stage for the first time as one of the stars of their latest musical, ‘Greek Wedding’, at The Ardhowen Theatre this June.
Speaking to The Impartial Reporter this week, Shelley said that it was “pure stubbornness and determination” that drove her on.
“I have faced many challenges throughout my illness. I have been tutted at, I have been told that I am in the way and take up too much space and I have been asked to leave a restaurant as my wheelchair was taking up too much room. The list goes on!
“Despite the many challenges, there have been many funny episodes and I have met some lovely people along the way who have encouraged and supported me. My attitude is to put a smile on my face and rise above it,” she said.
The Tamlaght woman praised the unwavering support she has received from her family, parents Ivy and Fred and brother David, throughout her illness.
She said: “My family brought me home from hospital to care for me. I was bed-bound for 12 years, tube-fed, in constant pain, unable to use my limbs, lost eyesight and my body was extremely sensitive to noise, touch and smell.
“I was so weak – there was many a time that my family thought I wasn’t going to survive. My mum was a nurse and took early retirement to look after me,” she said.
Despite all the setbacks she has suffered, Shelley said she had “no option” but to accept this was how her life was.
“There were times I got very down in the dumps and asked ‘Why me?’, but then I realised that a lot of people are unwell. My illness started to improve and on my 28th birthday I was hoist-lifted for the first time into a chair. I have continued to improve throughout the years, however I still need 24-hour care,” she said.
To this day, she is unable to use her hands and other limbs and her sight is “virtually non-existent”.
She now leads a very busy lifestyle which includes going to bingo, Drumcoo Day Centre twice a week, physio in the pool with carers moving her limbs, boccia (bowls for the disabled) and even shopping!
Describing herself as a “big child at heart”, Shelley said she loves animals, particularly her family’s dog Snowey, and children, and likes nothing better than a good boogie at a country music event.
Having enjoyed the first Brightstarz musical, Summer Romance, staged at The Ardhowen last year, the Tamlaght woman made the decision to join the drama group.
She revealed that Brightstarz has now become the highlight of her week.
“The first night I attended I cried as I felt I wasn’t able to take part in the dancing. However, with support and encouragement, the leaders have got me involved by allocating volunteers who move my arms and wheelchair to the music,” she said.
Shelley plays Sophie in a few scenes in ‘Greek Wedding’, and is involved in dancing and acting throughout the show.
She said: “When I say dancing, two volunteers, Ciaran Morris and Nessa Corrigan, move my arms and wheelchair to dance in sequence with the other members of the cast.”
She added: “I am nervous, however I have become more confident as we are practising in front of a large number of cast/volunteers and cast, family/friends and carers. It’s so enjoyable that I forget that there are so many people around me!”