It was a few years ago that Tonya Youngblood’s series of personal trials began. Youngblood’s mother suffered a stroke, followed by another and then a third.
That third stroke proved deadly, and then Youngblood’s own health took a surprising — and completely disruptive — turn. She was struck by epilepsy.
These days, the 37-year-old single mother of three is unable to work or even drive a car. Little by little, the condition stole Youngblood’s ability to be independent and self-sufficient — the simple task of grocery shopping requires the supervision of a family member or friend.
Still, Youngblood is thankful, as the family just narrowly avoided homelessness earlier in the year. From Wish Book readers, Youngblood is requesting clothes, shoes and bicycles for her three children, ages 12,13 and 18.
“I barely have enough income to take care of the bills,” said Youngblood, who receives federal disability assistance and lives with her children in a modest Fort Lauderdale apartment.
It was while working as a highway maintenance employee with the Florida Department of Transportation — a job she held for five years — that the first epilepsy seizure struck Youngblood several years ago.
Co-workers “said I was acting weird, I was talking funny,” Youngblood recalled. An ambulance whisked Youngblood to Fort Lauderdale’s Holy Cross Hospital.
As a hospital intake worker jotted down Youngblood’s personal information, it became clear something was seriously wrong. The worker asked Youngblood for her Social Security number, and for the first time in her adult life, Youngblood couldn’t remember it.
From there, an epilepsy diagnosis soon followed, though Youngblood said she was slow to accept it. She began taking the prescribed medications, but then stopped. She searched for second and third opinions, only to be given the same frustrating answer.
“I guess I didn’t want to believe it,” Youngblood said.
Attempts to hold onto her previous life proved futile. The Department of Transportation kept Youngblood on as an employee for a while, but ultimately dismissed her after the seizures kept recurring. Youngblood’s episodes were so intense that she would sometimes bite or hit those around her.
A subsequent job as a hair stylist was short-lived, as Youngblood said the seizures continued to happen at work and she would become “combative” when onlookers tried to nudge her into a chair until the seizure subsided.
Initially, doctors told Youngblood she could keep driving, but two seizure-related car accidents — including one where Youngblood’s black Nissan Pathfinder plowed through a concrete wall — led her to abandon getting behind the wheel. In both accidents, Youngblood’s middle-school aged daughters were also in the car, though thankfully no one sustained serious injuries in either crash.
With no car and no income, Youngblood soon fell behind on rent, and the family was evicted from their apartment. The family lived with Youngblood’s sister for some months, but eventually that sister’s boyfriend grew tired of the arrangement. Youngblood and her children had to go.
This past summer, the family bounced around, staying in various motel rooms, scraping by one day at a time. Youngblood relied on the generosity of others to keep afloat — a parent at her daughter’s school, for example, pitched in and paid for three nights at a motel.
“She had to end up pawning some of her jewelry...just to keep her and her children off the streets,” said Rachel Bilton, a case manager with the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, which nominated Youngblood for this year’s Wish Book.
Now that Youngblood is receiving disability assistance — and is taking a new medication — her situation has stabilized somewhat. Seizures are less frequent, and Youngblood’s children, thanking to training offered by the foundation, are now well-versed in how to respond when a seizure does occur.
“Not put stuff by her mouth, don’t touch her,” said daughter Monica, 13. “Take sharp objects out of her hands.”
Though the family’s finances are tight, Youngblood is appreciative of having a roof over everyone’s head and hopeful about the future.
“It’s better now,” Youngblood said. “I just want to be able to keep it and maintain it.”