Meet the inspiring hairstylist who refuses to let heartbreak and paralysis hold her back

Sabrina Rojas Weiss
Photo: Teaira Daniels, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/Bhz8SNxH6n-/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Instagram" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Instagram</a>
Photo: Teaira Daniels, Instagram

Teaira Daniels’s affinity for hairstyling was clear from the age of 4, when she braided her dolls’ hair so often that her that mother teased her, saying the hair would fall out. Decades later, she is beating the odds to return to that first love.

“My mom tried to get me to go to cosmetology school when I graduated from high school, but I wanted to major in communications for radio and television, so that’s that’s what I went to school for,” Daniels tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She was interning at radio stations in her hometown of Cincinnati in 2009 when her 1-year-old daughter, Amariyah, was diagnosed with Pompe disease, a rare disorder that causes muscles to break down. Daniels stayed home to care for her daughter until her death later that year. The experience prompted her to change her path and go back to school to become a medical assistant.

But in 2012, when she was one term away from completing her education, Daniels got sick herself. Severe nausea and vomiting landed her in the hospital for five weeks. No one was able to diagnose her, but becoming a medical assistant was off the table.

While recovering, Daniels decided she would go back to her childhood passion, and she enrolled in cosmetology school. Her life changed yet again when just three months shy of completing that program she got sick again. In and out of the hospital, Daniels had more questions than answers about her health.

Shingles, scabies (due to a back itch), lupus — every diagnosis seemed like a guess. “They weren’t sure what it was,” she says of her doctors. “They were trying to say it was all in my head. I’m like, ‘no, something is causing me to throw up all the time, and I can’t eat, every time I go back to school or work.’”

One day in September, Daniels returned to the emergency room. She woke up the second day and couldn’t feel her legs — she was paralyzed from the waist down. A doctor told her mother she had a 50/50 chance of living, but she pulled through.

Daniels underwent physical therapy and was getting chemotherapy — doctors assumed she had lupus — when finally, in 2015, three years after her first symptoms appeared, a neurologist hit on the correct diagnosis: neuromyelitis optica. The rare autoimmune disease (it affects between one and 10 people in 100,000) attacks the spinal chord and optic nerves. Daniels believes that had she been diagnosed earlier, her paralysis could have been avoided. “They could have caught it, and it wouldn’t have gotten to the worst state,” she says. “It was is hard because when people tell you that there’s nothing wrong and it’s all in your head. It’s very frustrating and discouraging, because you know your body.”

While she was in the hospital, Daniels’ physical therapist encouraged her to do hair and nails for her friends and family members, even when she couldn’t sit up on her own. After months of proper treatment — a type of chemotherapy to stop her own cells from attacking her — Daniels returned to cosmetology school.

Her teachers accommodated her, allowing her to sit in the salon chairs while the clients sat in regular chairs. People helped when she couldn’t reach the towels, and she continued to braid her family members’ hair from her bed while they sat on the floor.

When she finished school and passed her board tests in 2017, Daniels knew she’d need more help. An engineer at Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities found a way that might enable her to be able to style hair in any salon: a wheelchair that tilts up so she can stand. Without a full-time job, however, she wasn’t sure that the state or Medicaid would help her pay for it. Friends encouraged her to start a GoFundMe page.

When she received her upright wheelchair this August, she shut down the fundraiser, determined to land a full-time job. Meanwhile, a throwback Instagram post she shared of her first days of physical therapy began to gain traction on the internet. Celebrity makeup artist Theo Turner reposted the video she made for the GoFundMe page, which in turn caught the attention of comedian D.L. Hughley.

“DO WHATEVER MAKES YOUR HEART SINGGGG!!!” Hughley wrote when he reposted the video last week, which drew the attention of Buzzfeed. “There is true power in PASSION! Let no one talk you out of what you know is for you in your HEART!!!”

Social media users asked Daniels to bring her GoFundMe page back, so she did, this time asking for help raising money for a van so that she could learn to drive and regain her independence. Daniels’s internet popularity has had another benefit — it connects her to others living with neuromyelitis optica or other debilitating diseases. “I remember when I was first in a wheelchair, I was trying to look for other people [like me] because I felt like I was by myself,” Daniels says. “None of my friends and family had lost any children or lost the ability to walk.”

Though she is looking for a salon gig now, Daniels also wants to hit the road with her skills one day. “My goal is actually to have a mobile hair salon that can be accommodating to all people,” she says. “You don’t know what the future can hold. I have to take one moment at a time.”

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