Inspirational people who triumphed over tough times

When in tough times, knowing that others have also gone through difficult experiences and found happiness can give us hope that life can improve — “If they can be happy, I can too.” Below are the true stories of four of the most extraordinary survivors of hard times that I have ever come across. These people came through their difficult experiences aiming to put their troubles behind them and create bright futures for themselves. They all emerged triumphant over immense pain, loss and suffering. Their amazing resilience, inner strength and positive spirits make them role models for all of us.

Leon Leyson rebuilds his life after the Holocaust

Recently the extraordinary man Leon Leyson passed away at 83 years of age. Here is his true story of survival over hard times.

Leon was 9-years-old when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. His quiet life in Poland changed forever when he and his family were taken from their home and sent to a ghetto in Krakow, Poland. Leon survived as mass killings and deportations to concentration camps increased. Two of his brothers were killed during the Holocaust.

Leon became the youngest of the workers that Schindler, an industrialist, saved by declaring them vital for his factory work. The work was tough. Schindler doubled Leon’s rations because Leon was weak from hunger. Leon was so short that he had to stand on a box to work the machinery.

After the war Leon spent three years in a displaced persons camp in Germany. He moved to the US in 1949, and served in the US Army during the Korean War.

He went on to receive a master’s degree in education, and work as an industrial arts teacher at a Californian high school for 39 years before retiring. But after the 1993 movie Schindler’s List revived interest in the story, Leon began public speaking across US and Canada.

Leon was determined not to live in the past. He found ways to put his horrific wartime experiences behind him, and build a new life for himself. In 1997 Leon told the Portland Oregonian: “The truth is, I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust. I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”

Melissa Fokkema survives a deadly disease

In October 2005, 17-year-old Melissa Fokkema from Perth, Australia, felt unwell, like she was getting a cold. Mel awoke early one October morning feeling “weird” and “numb”. She woke up her mother, and both noticed purple-brown bruises all over Mel’s legs. Mel was rushed to hospital, where she was diagnosed with meningococcal disease — one of the fastest-killing bacterial diseases in the world. Mel was treated and put into a drug-induced coma. Doctors were unsure about whether she would awaken.

In time Mel awoke from the coma, but the disease had ravaged her body. In 2009 Mel said in an interview with The West Australian newspaper that: “The first two weeks were pretty touch and go, we didn’t really know what was going to happen – was I going to survive, if I did how much was I going to lose, was I going to be brain-damaged or not.”

Mel had to have her hands and legs amputated. Many operations, including skin grafts, followed. Mel endured countless painful dressing changes. Physiotherapists and occupational therapists worked with Mel to strengthen her body. She spent about nine months in hospital before moving back home.

Mel was fitted with prosthetic legs, a hook-like hand replacement for one arm, and a muscle-activated arm for the other. In time Mel learnt how to do many things with her new arms, including cook, type, apply make-up, work a digital camera and play the keyboard. In 2007 Mel got a special driver’s licence, and a car modified to her needs. Mel uses her prosthetic hands to work the car’s hand controls.

Mel said during an interview: “Pretty much everything has changed, it’s a whole new way of living, a different way of doing things. I had to accept this is it, this is what your life is going to be like for the rest of your life. That was the hardest thing to adjust to, because you’re not going to get a break from it. It’s a constant everyday struggle.”

But even with all the huge changes, challenges and difficulties Mel faces, she is inspiring. After recovering from her illness, she studied at university to become a primary school teacher. She returned to work a few hours a week at the childcare center where she was employed before she became ill. She became a Health Promotion Officer for the Amanda Young Foundation (AYF), speaking to people about how to prevent, identify and treat meningococcal disease. I sometimes worked with Mel at the AYF in 2011, while we were both working there. She is an amazing, inspiring, upbeat and kind woman. I’m glad I met her, and I enjoyed working with her.

Julie Fokkema, Mel’s mother, wrote in the October 2008 Amanda Young Foundation Newsletter that: “‘Mel has always expressed her thankfulness for ‘being alive’ and she appreciates life probably more now than she has ever before. And of course now she just wants to give ‘everything’ a go! Did you know that she went knee boarding behind a ski boat last Christmas holidays! If Mel sets her mind on attempting something new, she finds a way to do it or finds someone who can help her find a way. And don’t ever try telling her that she can’t do something…it’s a sure way for her to look for plan b…or c…'”

Matt Golinski looks to the future after immense loss

On December 26, 2011 fire broke out in 39-year-old celebrity chef Matt Golinski’s house in Queensland, Australia. Matt’s wife and three young daughters died in the blaze, and Matt suffered burns to over 40% of his body trying to save his family.

Matt spent the next two months in an induced coma. Doctors were unsure whether he would survive.

Remarkably, Matt survived his horrific injuries. After he awoke from the coma, he said that the love and support from friends, family and others had given him the will to live.

Despite his painful injuries, regular rehabilitation, and losing his house, wife and all of his children, Matt said, “… I am grateful to be alive. I am now trying to look to the future and live a life that would make them [Matt’s wife and daughters] proud.”

Matt is looking to the future, and his wife and children would be very proud of him. In 2013 Matt was running again. He said that he’d like to compete in half and full marathons soon. Matt is cooking regularly, and working on a cookbook. He is helping other burns victims as well. In 2012 he donated $100,000 of the money given to him for his recovery to help other burns survivors. What an amazing man.

Lauren Scruggs remains positive after suffering severe injuries

You may have heard in the news recently the true story of Lauren Scruggs. In December 2011 the 23-year-old US fashion blogger and model accidentally walked into a rotating plane propeller. As a result, she suffered severe injuries, including brain damage, and the loss of her left eye and hand. Lauren had shoulder and collarbone reconstruction, and a prosthetic hand and eye fitted.

Lauren is still recovering from the accident, and is having regular rehabilitation. Amazingly, her spirits have not been dampened; in fact, she said in an interview to “In majority, the accident has increased my passions and has brought more depth to them… I’ve gained a new perspective.”

“Spiritually, I’ve just learned to live by faith and not by sight,’’ Lauren said. “Even though I’ve lost my left eye, I’ve just realized that the Lord has a strong purpose in it, and I need to use that…. I realize God’s in control of my life and there’s a purpose to this story.’’

Lauren has written a book about her ordeal called Still Lola. She recently joined E! News as a reporter, and continues to work on Lola Magazine – a magazine and blog she started in 2011.

Lauren said: “I have kind of gained a new perspective of life and I feel like I need to use my message of hope and healing to help others, (and) inspire others, just like people have inspired me.’’

… Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”

– Helen Keller

… When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

– Helen Keller

Positive character traits of the survivors

These four survivors have things in common – what makes them winners – that can help others overcome tough times, such as they:

  • Make a conscious effort to put the past behind them and live happy lives, regardless of their past/current troubles
  • Don’t live in the past
  • Make plans for the future
  • Don’t focus too much on their own troubles, but instead keep busy and help others in need
  • Find meaningful reasons for their challenges, and use these in positive ways
  • Don’t give up on life or on overcoming their problems, but instead keep working through problems and keep improving
  • Don’t behave like victims; they behave like winners
  • Have meaningful goals in life
  • Have positive reasons to live

written by Nyomi Graef

Elks, S et al., 2011, Celebrity chef Matt Golinski struck by fire tragedy, The Australian,

Fokkema, J, October 2008, “Mum it’s meningococcal; you have to get me to the hospital!”, The Amanda Young Foundation News,

Furler, M, 2012, Matt’s $100k gift to burns victims, Sunshine Coast Daily,

Gibson, R, 18 Feb, 2013, Saved by Schindler, The West Australian, page 54

Leon Leyson Dead: Youngest ‘Schindler’s List’ Survivor Dies At 83, 2013, The Huffington Post,

Leon Leyson, Schindler survivor, 83, 2013,,

Matt Golinski returns to cooking stage, 2013, Ninemsn,

Roy, EA, 2013, Propeller victim Scruggs talks of moving on, Ninemsn,

Stump, S, 2012, Lauren Scruggs: ‘I’ve learned to live by faith’, Today News,

Tarala, K, 2009, Grit and Melissa go arm in arm, The West Australian,

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