On Jan. 18, nine-year-old Shelley Haisell won The Royal Conservatory 2012 Gold Medal for Grade 1 Voice in British Columbia.
In and of itself, this is a wonderful achievement. Gold medals are awarded each year in each province or designated region to candidates who have obtained the highest marks in their grade and discipline. To even qualify, candidates must achieve at least 80 per cent in the practical examination and complete the theory examinations.
But wait. There’s more: Shelley has overcome additional monumental challenges, exemplifying the scope of this already tremendous achievement.
You see, Shelley was born on May 26, 2003 in Pembroke, Ontario with what is known as “Pierre Robin Sequence.” PRS is a birth condition that results in unusual facial formation. Its cause is unknown.
On initial examination, the nurse informed them their new born daughter had PRS. Shelley had a cleft palette, a back-set lower jaw, and tightly-attached tongue and gums. In that instant, their lives changed.
Eating was the first urgent issue. Shelley and her mother Patricia were transported to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa, while her husband Jeff and their two boys, Nick (then 1) and Taylor (then 4), were left to hold down the fort in Petawawa.
In addition to medical interventions, Patricia learned how to feed Shelley using a specially designed bottle, and how to hold Shelley on her side so that she wouldn’t choke on her tongue. Added to the strain was that this occurred at the same SARS was spreading — declared a global epidemic that same July.
When Shelley was 10 months old, it became clear family support was essential. Since both Patricia and Jeff had family on Canada’s west coast, Vancouver Island became the obvious choice. In addition to affordable housing, Sooke offered manageable access to all resources, including extended family and medical support.
On her first birthday, when toddlers are typically enthralled with wrapping paper and empty boxes, Shelley was lying on a operating table under general anaesthetic at the then-named Queen Alexandria Foundation for Children (recently renamed Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island).
A medical team hovered over her, correcting her cleft palette with 43 stitches. And true to Murphy’s Law, there were complications: Shelley came out of anaesthetic too early and started to cry, an act that caused her to rip through several of her stitches. Before they could fix the torn stitches, she had lost a lot of blood. A blood transfusion ensued.
Also resulting from the operation was the discovery that Shelley had water in her ears, which affected her ability to hear in that first year of life. Hearing is crucial in speech development. She has since had her tongue operated on, and has 10 of her lower teeth pulled.
Speech therapy has consequently been a regular part of Shelley’s life. Her lower jaw is still retracted, and sounds that demand upper and lower jaw alignment required months and months of repetitive exercises to produce.
This level of discipline — facing constant failure in pursuit of eventual and distant success — is hard even for adults. Guided and supported by her parents and extensive support team, the young Shelley persisted until she mastered each sound. The services and support provided by the team of doctors and therapists with the Cleft Lip and Palette team at the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island have been life changing.
Her speech development was furthered by her mother, Patricia, a music teacher herself. Patricia introduced music as a complementary developmental resource. Shelley has been formally instructed in music theory and voice since she was four years old.
When speaking of Shelley’s extensive support team, Patricia sings high praise.
“This story reflects well on the service and support provided by the Queen Alexandra hospital for Children. Particularly the Cleft Lip and Palate team of doctors and therapists. Maureen O’Brien was an amazing and dedicated speech therapist and the surgeries that the doctors performed were life-changing. Shelley would not be where she is today without the expertise of those people,” said Patricia.
Here’s where the grand scope of Shelley’s accomplishment in winning the gold medal kicks in. Performance is graded on tone production, breathing, musicality and articulation. In other words, when Shelley sings on stage, every word needs to be heard crisp and clear throughout the entire auditorium.
When she tested in June, 2012, Shelley obtained the highest mark in the voice practical examination in British Columbia. The ceremony will be held at the Chan Shun Concert Hall in Vancouver, on Sunday, March 3.