A Burgess Hill mum who survived three cardiac arrests at the age of 36 has become what she believes to be the UK’s first special needs photographer of American accreditation.
Alexandra Watts, who used to work as a career civil servant, set up Perfectly Unique Photography in 2017 - just a year after recovering from the health scare which inspired her on to a new path in life.
“My family was told that I was unlikely to survive and if I did my quality of life would be poor,” said the now 38-year-old.
“I did survive and after a long stint in hospital I needed to consider what I was going to do with my life.
“Whilst I was in hospital I remembered a family photo shoot we had with our autistic son.
“Unfortunately the photographer didn’t ‘get’ my son and I remembered how awkward and uncomfortable I felt,” she added.
“If this was the way I was feeling I was sure that other families in a similar situation would be feeling the same.”
Alexandra studied photography at college and university but before getting her business off the ground, she wanted to complete some formal training so families could be confident in her service.
“Unfortunately the UK doesn’t have any courses combining special needs and photography so, thanks to Google, I found the Special Needs Photography of America’s accreditation,” she said.
She has been working on the accreditation for the last six months and achieved it by passing two exams and an assessment of her portfolio and website. She completed the course from home with all correspondence and assessments being done online. Thanks to the accreditation, Alexandra’s business focuses solely on disabled and special needs families which she believes to be the first of its kind in the UK.
“I am very proud to be the first but I am more excited about the prospect of other photographers completing the accreditation as I think there is a huge part of the community who aren’t catered for in photography, and I strongly believe this should change.
“Everyone should feel comfortable enough to create memories with a photographer.”
Before setting up her new business, Alexandra was working as a civil servant in London as a project manager and it was while on her way to her job that she started to become unwell.
The mum-of-three recalled: “On February 25, 2016 I left home for work in London at around 6.30am and as I left the warm house in to the cold it suddenly felt like I had be winded, badly.
“I carried on walking away from my home until I had reached the pavement outside the front of my house. I stopped and felt so bad that I considered not going into work – I then thought to myself, you are just being silly, you’ll feel okay again soon. So I went to catch my usual train to Victoria.”
She spent the day at work still feeling unwell but couldn’t quite put her finger on how exactly she was feeling: “I was just ‘off’,” she continued.
“Myself and my line manager decided to Google my symptoms and we had a real giggle when the results said I was going to have a heart attack. Little did we know.”
Still continuing to feel worse, she decided to not attend the leaving drinks she had planned to go to and instead got the train home.
“I don’t remember the train journey – but I do remember walking from Burgess Hill train station home talking to my friend and I remember asking her just to talk to me as I felt so unwell and couldn’t really talk back.
Once she arrived home she was surprised to see her husband Stuart as she was usually home before him.
“I remember being relieved as I didn’t have much energy left,” added Alexandra.
“I then vaguely remember our childminder advising me to ring 111 because I didn’t look very good.
“The rest I have pieced together from Stuart.
“Apparently I rang 111 and the doctor had rung me back when I turned to Stuart and handed him the phone and said ‘I cant do this anymore’. It was then my heart stopped, I had a cardiac arrest and collapsed. I collapsed in front of my three children who were then eight, five and two.
“Even now that is the part that upsets me the most.”
Thankfully already on the phone to a doctor, an ambulance was called and Stuart was talked through CPR by a 999 operator while the family childminder took the children into another room.
The ambulance team worked on Alexandra where she was shocked a few times before being taken to Brighton hospital.
“They found that a blood clot had caused my heart to stop and so a stent was added to my heart,” said Alexandra.
“Unfortunately I went on to have two more cardiac arrests in hospital and my family were told on two occasions to say their goodbyes to me.”
Due to all the arrests, Alexandra’s heart had been severely damaged and it was likely she would need a heart transplant to survive.
She was transferred to Harefield and Heart and Lung specialist hospital just outside London.
She ended up in a coma for three and a half weeks, and the day before she woke up her family were told that her brain had been damaged and doctors were unsure of the quality of life she would have.
“From my time in a coma all my muscle had gone and I had to learn how to walk and support myself again,” continued Alexandra.
“As I slowly regained my strength in hospital the decision was taken that I could leave on medication but remain on the transplant list.”
She was fitted with an ICD - her own in-built defibrillator to kick-start her heart should it happen again - and spent four more weeks in hospital doing physio.
“Although my heart is still very badly damaged, the parts of my heart that are working have picked up the slack of the muscles that have died and my heart is now functioning at the lower end of normal meaning I can live my life with no real barriers.”
Now working closer to home, Alexandra is based in Burgess Hill but she covers a 15 mile radius and is happy to travel further with a small additional cost for mileage added. Perfectly Unique Photography offers one photographic experience rather than different packages and all photo-shoots are on location at a place that suits the family, where they can feel most relaxed - be it the park across the road from where they live, a regular walk they go on or even their back garden.
She said: “The experience starts with a pre photo shoot consultation over the phone – this is where I talk to the customer about the additional needs any of the party has, what their likes and dislikes are.
“I believe this is an crucial part of the photo shoot - understanding how the person communicates, what actions may cause unnecessary stress etc is the key to enable me to prepare and plan a photo shoot that enables the best possible photos to be captured.
“I also understand that some children like to be prepared for new experiences or are just curious about people so I have a short, child friendly, fact sheet all about me – my likes, dislikes and some interesting facts.”
Included is a photo of Alexandra, so they can become familiar with what she look like, and also a picture of the camera she will be using so they can get a feel for that too. She also tailors this fact sheet to answer any questions the family of the child(ren) may have about the photo shoot or Alexandra.
She uses natural lighting as a flash can be distracting and she moves at the pace of the family.
“If a break is needed then we take a break, if a child is anxious then we take it slowly - but if attention span is short we move quickly,” continued Alexandra, who is mum to ten-year-old Harry, seven-year-old Amy and Isla who is four. I go with the pace and speed that suits each family. I do try and get the family photo but as working with special needs families is often unpredictable that sometimes isn’t possible - so from my point of view the families I have worked with are always very flexible about the type of photos that can and cannot be achieved on the day.”
Although she can’t guarantee a precise number of photos as each shoot differs, families can expect to receive around 20 photos but this number can (and often does) increase.
Within six weeks all the photos will be placed on a secure and password protected site which the clients can keep by downloading and share with other family members and friends.
“I have had a lot of interest and I have been able to build up a portfolio by working with families and the special needs social club Kangaroos, however what I underestimated when I set up this business is that families who have special needs children have never considered a photo shoot as a possibility as, chances are, they thought it would be more hassle and stress than it was worth.
“So what I have found to be the major barrier to booking is convincing families that actually a photo shoot - especially with me - is doable and can be enjoyable.”
Alexandra is also working with the Disability Pride organisers in Brighton and have been confirmed as their official photographer for the event in July.
She is also currently working in the office of the school her son attends - Woodlands Meed in Burgess Hill - while her business finds its feet. For more information visit www.perfectlyuniquephotography.co.uk