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“I thought of Sandi as my grandmother and a dear friend.” Ghazala.
Please read below a heartfelt story written by Ghazala about her special connection with her friend Sandi.
Hi, my name is Ghazala, an undergraduate biomedical science student. I’ve been Sandi’s volunteer since early 2019 through Blind Sports and Recreation Victoria.
Sandi sadly passed away on the 21st of August 2022. I am writing this in her memory as she meant the world to me. Even though I was just a volunteer, I thought of her as my grandmother and a dear friend. She was the kindest, most selfless, and strongest soul I have ever met. I hope you are resting peacefully, Sandi. You’ll always be in my heart. I will miss you.
[Image description: Two pictures of young Sandi, circa 1969 – 1987, wearing her white nursing uniform. She wears her hair up neatly, covered in a nursing hat. Pinned to her nursing uniform is her nametag and a medical cross. She also wears a beautiful smile.]
Sandra Lee Pontin (née Hansen) was born on the 6th of December 1950, to Henry and Shirley Hansen. She was an only child. She was known as ‘Sandi’ to her friends. After completing VCE, she signed up to be an apprentice nurse where she lived and studied at the hospital. She then worked at the Royal Children's Hospital (RCH) as a paediatric nurse, which was one of her biggest passions.
Sandi loved nursing. One of the things she mentioned to me before she passed away was that if she was not sick, she’d still be working at the RCH as a paediatric nurse or would have pursued further studies in midwifery.
Sandi began losing her vision in her 30s and was initially misdiagnosed with retinopathy. She was later diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy (as her local GP persistently advocated for her wellbeing, sending letters to the neuro department until she received a response), a rare illness that affects the mitochondria in the body. Mitochondria are important as they provide the body with the energy it needs to carry out its normal function.
Dysfunction to mitochondria can affect all the major organ systems, and as a result, her mobility was greatly affected, her vision was fully lost, and she partially lost her hearing. Despite this diagnosis, Sandi worked until she fully lost her vision.
At the same time, she worked very hard to care and provide for her two sons as a single mother, which you can imagine would’ve been even more difficult back in the day.
Sandi loved animals, especially Labradors. She cared for a total of five in her lifetime: Duke, Bracken, Valerie, Dyson, and Narla. Since Sandi lived independently, her Labradors were constantly by her side as her company. Narla remained beside her on the day that she passed away, never leaving her side. One of her most beloved Labradors was named Valerie, a therapy dog. Valerie came into Sandi’s life from Seeing Eye Dogs when she started losing her vision. She unfortunately passed away due to cancer in one of her limbs. Sandi treasured Valerie and had her cremated. Her ashes rest inside a beautiful wood box and Sandi would always tell me: “Valerie is watching over me and the house”.
[Image description: photo on the left is an image of Sandi and her therapy dog, Valerie, a black Labrador Retriever. The photo on the right is a photo of Valerie’s memorial urn.]
Miriam Bilander, a BSRV Program Manager, introduced me to Sandi. “Take an older blind lady in a wheelchair out for a walk and help her to connect to nature and enjoy some social engagement” was the volunteering program I signed up for in 2019. I remember the very first thing that I saw as I entered her house – a boisterous, playful, and excited golden Labrador, Dyson holding ‘Puppy’ (his favourite soft toy) in his mouth and wagging his tail.
[Image description: Dyson, Sandi’s yellow Labrador Retriever carrying toys, including ‘Puppy’, his favourite soft toy.]
Then I met Sandi, who was accommodating, chatty, charismatic, and lively. I learned that she was an animal lover who had two sons and six grandchildren and was once a registered nurse at the Royal Children's Hospital.
I would visit her every week and we would go for a walk. She knew every part of East Keilor, acting as my GPS as we walk. During our walks, I got to know her more and more. One of our favourite routes was Quinn Grove where the Keilor East Leisure Centre was being renovated, near her son’s old school.
During our walks, I would describe the surroundings, the weather, and we would discuss the audiobooks she read on Audible, politics and current events, as well as filling me in on any updates I’ve missed since my last visit. Sandi’s favourite authors were James Patterson and Jodi Picoult. She would read every night before bed, sometimes for hours. Reading was one of her favourite activities.
Sandi would often dress in pink as it was her favourite colour, and in comfortable clothing – often fluffy, thick pyjamas and slippers. Sandi was always eager to learn new things, whether it was keeping up to date with current events and politics or being updated with news on the mito community.
Even when she had lost her vision, she studied Auslan in TAFE. She also tried her best to be updated with technology. Sandi was always very self-reliant and independent. She would spend a few hours browsing the internet for recipes and compiling them into a Word document before meal prep. She would also write a methodical, coded, shopping list for her support workers: A for Aldi, C for Coles, and W for Woolworths. She was a pescetarian and her favourite foods, snacks, and beverages were Lifesaver Musk Sticks, Bickford’s Iced Coffee and Chicory, Bickford’s Lemon Lime and Bitters and Peach Iced Tea cordials, veggie straws, Gippsland and Milo yoghurt, Jack Rose juice, lemon meringue pie, liquorice, fried rice, dim sims, sushi, and vegetarian recipes by Jamie Oliver.
During the lockdowns in 2020 – 2021, I had a permit as a volunteer to visit her. Though we couldn’t go outside for our regular walks, I would always shout her takeaway food (usually Japanese food, which was her favourite) and we would eat together and spend the entire day together.
[Image description: Narla, Sandi’s yellow Labrador Retriever. In one of the photos, she is asleep. In the other photo, she is sporting a smile and wearing a purple crochet hat.]
Even when I couldn’t come over and visit her, I would message her every few days and we would keep in contact and update each other about our day. After the lockdowns, we would go to the local restaurant ‘The Fat Chef’ and she would always order her favourite calamari and chips, and a milkshake or iced coffee. We’d sit outside as we always took Narla and it was nice and warm even during the winter because of the outdoor heaters.
[Image description: Sandi sitting outdoors with Narla, enjoying a lemon lime and bitters at The Fat Chef.]
Sandi was an incredibly quick learner too! When her iPhone 8 broke down, I taught her how to use the iPhone 13 that didn’t have the tactile home button and she picked it up quickly. Her memory was amazing – she would memorise appointment dates, birthdays, phone numbers, and names.
Some of my favourite memories with Sandi:
Celebrating Mother’s Day and birthdays
Walking during sunny weather
Having takeaway dinner, which was either fish and chips, pizza, or Japanese food
Teaching her how to use iPhone 13, OneDrive, and other things on the computer
Accompanying her to her granddaughter’s wedding and taking her dancing with her sons and grandsons
Eating ice cream with her and occasionally drinking Bacardi and coke (her favourite alcoholic drink)
Eating at the Fat Chef with Narla
Cooking quesadillas with her
Giving Narla baths during lockdown
Sandi teaching me how to apply a wound dressing
Rugging up together during the chilly winter and having a nap
Sandi was an incredibly kind, open-minded, and caring person. She was always there for me whenever I needed a friend and would tell me that if I was struggling with anything that I could always visit her any time.
I signed up to volunteer for BSV as I wanted to give my time to do something meaningful and positive for someone. At the end of the day, Sandi gave me more than what I gave her. She was a wonderful soul, and she will always be in my heart.
I will always be thankful that the universe allowed me to know her in this lifetime. My birthday was a few days before she passed, and she left a birthday card for me that sings when opened with a written message:
I hope you enjoy your day! Good luck with uni - I know you’ll make a fantastic doctor. Lots of love, Sandi, and Teeny Tiny (her nickname for her Labrador Narla).
It sits on my desk next to a photo I have of her. I read it whenever I am missing her. I am feeling sad as I write this. It took me months to sit down and write. I’m not even sure if what I’ve written is coherent.
[Image description: photos of me and Sandi.]
I know that Sandi wanted to contribute something meaningful to mitochondrial disease research. If you have the means and you would like to, you can donate to the Mitochondrial Foundation on behalf of Sandi. Or you could write a message for her on the Mito Mighty Hearts memorial page that was set up by one of her friends. Here are the links:
Leave a message: https://fundraise.mito.org.au/fundraisers/lisadillon/mighty-hearts
Thank you, Sandi, for bringing lots of happiness into my life and many people’s lives. You will always be missed. Rest peacefully.
I would like to thank these people on behalf of Sandi. They provided plenty of support over the years. Thank you to:
Tumua, Christie, Hibo, Lily, Sam, Keegan, and Sharee (a support team from Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Benetas, and Omnicare)
Meg (who has been a good friend and volunteer dog walker for many years), and Lisa (her long-time carer and friend)
Ayman, her dedicated GP, Brian and the team at Lincolnville Pharmacy (who have been bringing her medications over to her home)
Her physiotherapists, and the team at St. Vincent’s Hospital who cared for her wellbeing
Her friends from Deafblind Victoria, Able, and Vision Australia
Anne and Niddrie Vet who cared for her animals
Anyone else who I’ve missed who was a part of Sandi’s life
Heading out most weekends, Annette and BSRV volunteer Andrew are sharing their joy of riding as they explore their local area.
Since losing his sight, Paul has faced challenges head on and believes that anything is possible.
“I thought of Sandi as my grandmother and a dear friend.” Ghazala.
Proving there are many opportunities for people with vision impairment and inspiring others to work towards their dream.