New Zealand Law Society - The lawyer who proved the doctors wrong

The lawyer who proved the doctors wrong

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Vanassa McGoldrick
Vanassa McGoldrick

Vanassa McGoldrick isn’t one to let small things get her down.

The Whangarei litigation lawyer has struggled all her life with health issues, having been diagnosed with a rare condition when she was born.

Ms McGoldrick, who is 52, was born with Nail-Patella syndrome, and has no kneecaps or quadriceps muscles in her thighs.

“The advice from doctors was ‘amputate her legs, she’ll never walk, don’t give her false hope’. It was a very rare disability which hadn’t been seen in New Zealand at that time.”

Nowadays Ms McGoldrick is able to walk short distances but has the aid of a mobility scooter “which I shoot about town on or head up to the courthouse on”.

“Parking in the city is always an issue, but having the fold-down scooter eliminates some of the parking issues because I can hop about on it if I can’t park close enough to the office.”

Going to England with hope

At the age of six, Vanassa’s English father took her over to his home country “before they took such drastic action in having my legs amputated” to have operations on the feted National Health Service (NHS).

“Those operations were semi-successful as they kept me walking but they weren’t as successful as the doctors there had hoped. So they cut the muscle out of the sides of my legs and moved them to the top of my legs to enable me to then have like a kicking action.”

She was in hospital in England for just over a year and on being discharged was advised to swim as much as she could, which she did back in New Zealand.

Unable to do much in the way of sport at school, Ms McGoldrick focused instead on learning to type. And that is where she experienced a form of epiphany that led to her eventual career path.

“I was typing at lunchtime and during sport lessons and I became very fast. A teacher gave me a “C” for effort and when I questioned her she effectively told me I was doing just enough and not exercising my potential because, in her words ‘you think that by being fastest in the school you are already there’.

“She said ‘when you go for a job interview the first thing they are going to see is your crutches and the first thing they’re going to think is how do we politely say no’. She wanted me to go in for my first interview with so many qualifications that I would be the only person they wanted for the job.

“It was a real defining moment and pretty much changed my life because from then on it wasn’t ‘what do I have to do to beat the others’, it was ‘how big is the potential ahead for me’?”

She had wanted to be a lawyer at the age of 16 but accessibility issues prevented Vanassa from going to university and led to her instead being a stenographer in the Whangarei courts.

Dealing with frustration

After two years in the UK using her typing skills she qualified as a legal executive in New Zealand in 1990 and worked in the role for 20 years.

“I loved being a legal executive but I got to the stage where I felt I could do so much more. It was frustrating as a legal exec having a lawyer sign off on a document that I had more knowledge about than the lawyer, because I had been working on the file from day one.”

She wanted to do litigation work and to help people with disabilities in ACC claims and related matters.

But it wasn’t that straightforward.

“It felt incredibly wrong that I should have to make a choice between being able to carry on fighting to walk versus being able to get the education that I should be entitled to.”

She would have been able to get other international correspondence degrees but not a New Zealand degree.

While working as a legal executive in the commercial and property team and raising her children, Ms McGoldrick enrolled in law at the University of Otago in 2008. She studied remotely but flew down to Dunedin for exams and other course-related matters and corresponded regularly with her tutors via Skype and telephone.

“It wasn’t a correspondence course, so Professor Mark Henaghan and the staff did an amazing job making sure I was able to be as normal a student as is possible.

“I was working at Henderson Reeves, raising children, studying full-time and remained on all the disability boards that I was on. People ask me how I got through that time, and I look back and think I have absolutely no idea.

“I often wanted to swap my children’s Harry Potter books with my ones on contract law.”

She was admitted in 2012 and focused on litigation, specialising in disability and family law.

“You get a lot of people in terrible circumstances and a lot of pain needing immediate help and that was an area I knew I would do well in.”

Ms McGoldrick began working at Henderson Reeves in 2004 and was attracted to the firm because it had access for disabled people and great family values. “There was – and still is – a little lift as you come into the building that gets you up the first three or four stairs.”

She is Chairperson of the Whangarei Accessible Housing Trust and a member of the CCS Disability Action Local Advisory Committee.

Double whammy

Two-and-a-half years ago Ms McGoldrick suffered a mini stroke that was brought on by a “pretty big” brain tumour that was discovered the same day.

“I got admitted with the stroke symptoms and then they did the CT to eliminate a tumour as being the cause … only to find out it was the cause,” she says.

“It came completely out of the blue and was a big shock. That was completely separate from my disability but because of my disability some of the signs – such as being unsteady on my feet – leading up to the stroke, and the discovery of the tumour, were kind of masked by the fact that I had a disability.

“Initially, the doctors were unsure whether the brain tumour could be removed so it was very stressful at the time, but luckily I had medical insurance through Henderson Reeves and was able to have it operated on within a week of diagnosis and that was succesful.”

Early ignorance

“The problem was that when I was born there was so little known about my disability, so some of the things they (doctors) were telling us – like short life expectancy – weren’t necessarily true but, to be fair to them, they didn’t know an awful lot about my condition.

“And with a lot of disabilities you do have a shorter life expectancy, but over the years we have discovered that isn’t always true and I have just as good a chance of living a long life as anyone else.”

Growing up Vanassa would go on camps and do other activities with disabled youth and teenagers, having “wonderful experiences” meeting people from other parts of New Zealand and other countries because of her disability.

“It demonstrated the differences from how my parents raised me to how probably the majority of parents back then would normally raise a disabled child. That is, they are paternalisitic and protective and they are worried that they are going to try too much and be left disappointed. So they try to protect them from the knocks in life – and that’s a perfectly understandable way of doing things. But if you reverse that and take away the limitations you would put on somebody, it opens up a world for them because I didn’t ever, as a child, think I couldn’t do things.

“I talked about going on an OE just like my friends talked about going on an OE and my parents never turned around and said ‘that’s never going to happen, just look at your legs’; they just went ‘when are you planning on going?’ And so there was never this barrier to doing things and that made a huge difference because if they didn’t limit my expectations, then I didn’t know how to limit my expectations.”

When she was 21 Vanassa went to England and her aunty was shocked that her father hadn’t come with her and had allowed her to go to the other side of the world on her own.

“Vanassa is very inspiring. She is a single mum with two daughters, and when she was young she was told she wouldn’t do much in life and that she didn’t have a long life expectancy,” says Henderson Reeves Director Jeremy Browne.

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