Bassingbourn man gives back to Cambridge charity that supported him
He went blind overnight at 25. But now Nick Burr is hoping to raise money and awareness for the charity that gave him back his confidence – and offered him a job.
Back in 2013, Nick’s life changed dramatically when he started feeling ill a few days before Christmas.
“I was getting horrendous earaches, so I went to my GP, who said I had an ear infection,” he explained.
“I went home with antibiotics, but the pain continued, so on Boxing Day I went to an out-of-hours GP. He wasn’t sure [about the infection] as my ear wasn’t very red, and I had high blood pressure.”
The GP suspected Nick had meningitis because he’d been suffering with double vision, and sent him to A&E. After checks at hospital, Nick, who lives in Bassingbourn, was sent home.
“And then, on New Year’s Eve, I had a seizure,” he said. “I hadn’t really been sleeping and I wasn’t able to do anything. I was a mess.
“A doctor came out and said I was okay, but my dad took me to A&E where I had another seizure. I was out of it for about four days.”
When he woke up, Nick was blind.
“I turned to my mum and asked her to open the blinds, and she laughed. She thought I was having a joke and I just said, ‘No, I can’t see anything’. She replied, ‘What are you on about, it’s a lovely sunny day?’.
“At first you don’t realise and when it started to dawn on me, I broke down and put my head in the pillow. Mum rushed out because she didn’t know what to do, and got a nurse.
“At this point, they still thought it was temporary because they still thought I had meningitis, when this sometimes happens and then comes back. So there was a bit of hope.”
It was discovered that Nick, who is now 29, was suffering from central nervous system acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – a disease in which malignant cells form in the lymph tissue of the brain or spinal cord. He was told he would not be getting his sight back.
“It was scary, and I got emotional, but in a way the emotions didn’t last long because they’d finally found out what was wrong with me.
“Literally straightaway I was given a lumber puncture, so chemotherapy could go straight into my spine and a drip, also for chemotherapy.”
Over a six-month period, Nick, who attended Bassingbourn Village College and Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and finally a self-stem cell transplant – and in October 2014, he was given the all-clear. He has been in remission for three and half years.
“Because it had been six months, in a way I was living with it and more worried about the cancer while they were sorting that out, but I did have my moments where I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t do stuff like I could before. But you can, it’s just slower and it takes time to learn it again.”
The former tax analyst has since dedicated his time to raising money for the charities that supported him.
“I got introduced to Cam Sight through one of their old employees who was around my age,” he said.
Cam Sight is a Cambridgeshire charity that supports people of all ages living with low vision and blindness to live the lives they choose. It works to enhance independence, improve wellbeing and improve inclusion. It offers emotional and practical support, including technology, equipment, volunteers, peer support groups and access to sports.
He recalled: “I started to use Cam Sight’s emotional support services, which are free, and you’re able to have a chat with someone.”
The person Nick spoke with was partially-sighted herself so she knew how he felt, which helped.
“She said she would get frustrated with things and still did,” he explained. “It was learning everything again and getting my independence back to a point of course, because being completely blind you do need help sometimes.
“Moving on, I just had to adjust to everything; playing different sports and getting a guide dog.”
He continued: “They [Cam Sight] start at home and they start with little things like making a cup of tea. There’s a level indicator that you use which beeps at you when the water gets to a certain level in the cup, so that’s how I make a cup of tea.
“There’s a slow beep and you take the tea bag out, and then when you put the milk in there’s a faster beep.
“It’s also things like setting up your phone, basically anything you come across that you need, you can contact them, and they’ll see what technology they have that could help.
“They then start taking you out with a cane and you just have to learn. Because it’s quite recent, I can remember, I can visualise it of sorts. But even then, you just work around the kerbs and you have to walk in step, so your cane goes left, and your right foot goes forward and then you switch so the cane will always hit something before you. It’s a lot of hard work because you must concentrate and listen.
“You listen to the air pressure changing so you know you have to turn or the bus stop might be there. It’s just learning everything again.”
Through Cam Sight, Nick has joined a goalball team, Cambridge Dons Goalball Club, and more recently, a blind football team.
“It [goalball] was the first blind sport I got involved in and it’s brilliant because it makes you completely independent,” he said.
Goalball is a team sport for the visually impaired in which participants are blind-folded, and it’s great for meeting other people.
Nick, who studied accounting and finance at Nottingham Trent University, recently completed a three-month internship with Cam Sight and, just before Christmas, was delighted to be offered a job with the charity. Before his illness, Nick was working as a tax analyst in a consulting firm.
“Everything was quite dandy and it all came to a head [when this happened].
“Before this I was a tax analyst who did whatever I had to, go to meetings and tell partners how to save money, but then you never really saw the benefit of it. You sent an email off and that was it.
“So I get a lot more out of doing the fundraising. I want to get out and do more.”
He continued: “I want to keep busy and get back into normality of sorts. I can’t be sitting around all day every day, I want to achieve stuff and the fundraising element I really like.
“I get a lot of fulfilment out of it. When you see the money you bring in, you can see it helping people.
“I’m just going down this avenue because it’s a whole new world for me. I want to get a job, get on the platform, working everything out and going from there. But just keeping busy.”
But some things have been hard for Nick.
“I’m a bit more talkative and social because you have to talk,” he said. “But if you say something and the other person doesn’t agree with it, you might not know if they don’t say anything because you can’t read their body language. That’s one of the negatives of being completely blind: noticing people’s body language is harder.”
Each year since his illness, Nick has taken part in charity events to raise money for those who have supported him, with events including casino nights and a ‘dining in the dark’ evening. He hopes to continue raising awareness of those who have helped him.
Nick also praised the support of his family, his mother Kim Burr, who runs Burr Bridal in King Street, Cambridge, and father Michael Burr, who plays blind golf with him, siblings Josh and Elliott and his partner, Charlotte Parker.
“For me, if I need help, I’ll take it. Because I can’t do everything. The independence is important but it’s not always realistic and it’s sometimes better for your mental health to ask for help.”