A YOUNG Abergavenny woman whose teenage years were devastated by epilepsy so severe that she was suffering more than 150 seizures a day has overcome many of the condition’s hurdles to forge a successful singing career culminating in a performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London this week reports BOB ROGERS..

Former Crickhowell High School student, Nicola Vaughan, now 24 has been fighting epilepsy since her first seizure at the age of 14.

The number of seizures escalated rapidly, at one point reaching 156 a day, making it difficult for her to concentrate on her love of singing and forging a musical career.

As a school pupil, she often sang for her friends and on leaving attended Hereford Sixth Form College but her epilepsy made studying virtually impossible. She enrolled in Ebbw Vale College as a music student and performed mostly mainstream music. To further her studies she went on to the British Institute of Modern Music (BIMM) where she underwent specialist voice training.

It was on applying for the BBC Proms Youth Choir that examiners discovered she had an incredible five octave vocal range and was immediately signed up as a soprano. The culmination of her career so far was a performance on Monday, July 29th in a BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall, broadcast live on Radio 3.

Nicola told the Chronicle, ‘Some people don’t realise just how disabling epilepsy is, at 17 I was selected for brain surgery and then told there was ‘Too much activity in the brain.’ After years of waiting, and years of being told I could be ‘fixed,’ I was told I was ‘SUDEP’–Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. I could die at any moment, and no-one would know why. 

‘My health was extremely bad, I think at one point my seizures averaged out to approximately 156 seizures a day. That included Partial Seizures, absence seizures and grand mals. 

People associated seizures with the ones they saw televised and so they would often stare at me in disbelief when told the sheer amount I suffered from. This caused me to feel insecure about my own illness in many ways–constantly having to prove myself with doctors notes and carry around medication.

 ‘I was put on 24-hour care and even had my own pet dog who luckily sensed when I was unwell made into my personal epilepsy assistance dog for when I was at home so that I knew when to take a moment away. 

‘Due to the severity of my epilepsy, I missed a lot of education–people thought I was just ‘lazy’ or ‘daydreaming’ but in reality a lot of the time i was having seizures. But due to the stigma around me I also found myself deeply depressed.

‘In a lot of cases there were points where I thought I may never do anything. I remember dropping several subjects at Hereford Sixth Form College no matter how much they pushed me and told me I was able to do this because I was scared at one point that I may endanger another student.

 ‘In one lesson I remember having an abscence seizure holding a Bunsen and burned a beautiful dark haired girl I had made friends with in chemistry and then all of a sudden I couldn’t move. But the Bunsen was on–and I had lit the end of her hair alight...she hadn’t noticed.

‘At one point I thought I may never work or ever perform. I was really nervous and anxious. I became depressed. Years of help and support from teachers and educational colleges alongside supportive doctors and at my lowest, even a therapist were able to keep me on track–but nothing spoke to me as much as music. 

‘Hereford College of Arts is where I first realised my love for music, and how much I loved it and the people within it. All from such different backgrounds and petitioning for change.

“They showed me how to structure song lyrics–something I had been doing already at a basic level in English Language at HSFC through my poetry and how to turn that into an emotional performance.  But my seizures grew worse and worse. And I left regardless. 

‘Years later with my seizures growing ever more horrific, I transferred to Ebbw Vale College and studied with a man who had been training with the wheelchair basketball team in Hereford. Someone who I class as one of my main inspirations–he taught me never to allow my disability to hold me back and was head of the music department at Coleg Gwent. He pushed me and pushed me until I finally succeeded, and without him I don’t think I would have ever come this far. 

BIMM is where I had dreamed of going since hearing of them at Hereford College of Arts all those years before. They made the most basic of singers into stars! Alumni such as James Bay, The Kooks, George Ezra to name but a few just made me more excited to be near the tutors who had created morphed their success. 

I was still a very anxious girl–scared of having a seizure, but once I was accepted I burst into tears.

‘One tutor said something that changed my entire outlook. “It’s not about the fall...it’s about whether you get back up.” These tutors, became not just my tutors–but in the end my friends.

 ‘One day there was an audition for BBC Proms Youth Academy–it was for Basses and Tenors, but I said ‘you never know...they may need a soprano...’ and jumped at it. 

‘I never expected a reply. They had not advertised for Sopranos on our page. But, I was emailed back that weekend–and every train was delayed but, I Made It. 

‘I sang in front of a classical expert, a Britney Spears song. It was the only thing I could remember, I was so nervous. It had been a while since I had last sang in front of others.’

 BBC Proms definitely isn’t the last stop, just like one of my tutors at BIMM had said once, it’s not about the fall, it’s about whether you get back up.’