Fitting award for a very special person

The Cambridge News Person of the Year for 2018, Jan Nesbit, with her guide dog and good mate Portia.

Sometimes, the greatest treasures are to be found right in our midst.

Jan Nesbit, Cambridge News’ newly-minted Person of the Year for 2018, is one of them. In the late 1960s, she was the first woman ambulance driver in the Waikato, and while life has delivered many lemons since then, she continues to focus her energies on caring for others.

For the past five years she’s almost single-handedly co-ordinated many hundreds of Red Cross journeys transporting locals to and from medical and hospital appointments in Hamilton. In the past she’s helped countless new mums through Plunket, was at one stage a St John cadet leader, and was involved with Women’s Refuge and Victim Support. She is still a member of the Cambridge Blind and Vision Impaired Support Group, has for years helped raised funds for both the Foundation for the Blind and the Cancer Association, and is a member of the local Arthritis Group.  And just to make sure she’s keeping her mind snappy through it all, she’s a member of Cambridge Rebus Group.

That would be challenging for anyone, but it is all the more remarkable in Jan’s case because she is blind.

In 2008, she lost her sight rapidly after being diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, a rare eye disorder.  She had just had a hip replacement, but before she could return to driving after the surgery her advancing blindness meant she would never drive again. Three years later she found herself battling stage four breast cancer and Jan, who was always active through work or her volunteering efforts, struggled to find something that would fit her new reality.

“I have always been involved with medical field one way or another. When I became blind, I had been working as a primary health marketing specialist, travelling all over the place. I was really busy and had to find something to fill the gap … I just can’t sit still.”

Her first pick was to do a business and computer studies programme to ensure she could still function, then she started an applied social science degree, focusing on counselling, but the cancer hit half way through and she never finished it.  At one stage she put her CV out there, but soon discovered how few people were interested in hiring a blind person. They were blows that would have halted most people in their tracks – instead they slowed her just long enough to find another direction, and before long Jan was out there volunteering again.

She picked up the Red Cross gig about five years ago and loves it. “I wouldn’t mind a break every now and then,” she laughed. “When I took over, we were taking about 10-14 calls a week, now they’re up around 100 or more a month. They come at any time of day or night, and it can take a while to co-ordinate an available driver to do the run. It can get exhausting … sometimes all three phones around here are going at once.”

She does talks to groups and schools, yet always finds time to do more. Jan and a group of friends put up the Granny’s Groupies at this year’s Cancer Society Relay For Life, raising funds and winning themselves a team award in the process.

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