Alpha Stories

Published on Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Michelle’s photos tell all — Alpha-1 doesn’t get in her way!

Michelle’s photos tell all — Alpha-1 doesn’t get in her way!

Birds, reptiles and insects can be tough to photograph – great skill and patience is needed to capture their movements in nature, and you have to be pretty mobile to get close-up and aerial shots, right?

Not if you’re Michelle Wisniewski.

Wisniewski has been taking photos most of her adult life. For years now, they’ve all been taken from a motorized scooter. Wisniewski’s severe Alpha-1 lung disease forces her to use the scooter to get around. “(The scooter) gives me a unique perspective,” she says.

Her long and discouraging journey to diagnosis is a fairly typical Alpha story. She was a smoker for more than 20 years, and began to get short of breath while still in her 20s when she was an officer in the US Army serving in Vietnam. She thought she was suffering from general “low endurance” and just needed to step it up a bit.

The Army disagreed. Wisniewski couldn’t run anymore and was discharged. At discharge, Army doctors said they couldn’t find anything specifically wrong with her.

Her health and breathing continued to worsen. It took 20 years and many doctors to eventually diagnose her – with severe emphysema. When the shortness of breath persisted and eventually prevented her from climbing a flight of stairs, she decided it was time to see a pulmonary specialist.

A Pennsylvania Hospital pulmonologist she saw in 1990 diagnosed her immediately with Alpha-1. She started using augmentation therapy in 1992 and became a disabled scooter user in 1995. She’s now on supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day.

She moved to the Florida Keys in 1996. After running into widespread discrimination using her scooter in public facilities and other places in the Keys, in 2001 she decided changes needed to be made. That’s when she got involved with the Association for Disabled Americans (ADA).

 Wisniewski says the ADA often finds that it takes a lawsuit to get reasonable responses to the concerns of the disabled. “It’s a form of non-violent action. Same thing MLK did, same thing Gandhi did,” she says. “They had to go to court to get the Brown vs. Board of education; that’s the same thing we’re doing for disabled persons. That’s why I’m fighting so hard against intolerance; that’s what all of these lawsuits are about. If you have your independence, the disability is no big deal.”

She says, “ Our mission is to improve the economic and societal opportunities of our members by providing counseling and other services to those members as well as, when required, enforcing the legal rights to access for these members. Foe example, we try to teach people to come down to our eye level when they want to do business with us. It’s part of the courtesy you invoke when you’re dealing with physically disabled people.”

Wisniewski was also chair of the Florida Keys Council for People with Disabilities from 2003 through January of 2008.

Looking at her photographs, there’s no sign of the obstacles she has had to overcome to get the beautiful shots she does.

“I’m limited… most things you want to photograph, you have to get reasonably close,” she says. “I’m always frustrated if I get winded shooting. I’ve got to stop and catch my breath. I use the most lightweight equipment I can. I can’t use the really big stuff you see at professional sporting events; they’re just too heavy for me.”

She does most of her shooting in the Florida Keys, her back yard since 1996. “I love getting close to nature. It’s a real passion.” She also visits National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in South Florida and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

Nowadays you can see her photographs in a local newspaper and placed on many public walls in the Keys. She does a monthly two-page photo essay, with an article and about five of her photographs, in an effort to teach readers about the fragile ecosystem of the Keys.

All in all, she doesn’t let her Alpha-1 or her scooter get in the way of her passion for photography or for life. “You take what’s there and you enjoy it; you can make anything you want out of your life.”

Wisniewski’s photographs have won several awards in the Florida Parks photo contest and have been used in the Florida Wildlife Federation 2007 Calendar. She has a total of 373 photographs in public installments, and her work is on display at the Audubon House Gallery and the Key West Botanical Garden in Key West.