On the morning of Aug. 12, 2009, Mackenzie Westmoreland woke up in darkness.
He became blind before the age of 40 because of diabetic retinopathy, an event that started him “on a path of self-discovery” that required personal change.
Westmoreland, an award-winning director and producer and a Troy University alumnus, told his story at the Helen Keller Lecture Series on Tuesday, March 3, of overcoming the everyday struggles that come with being blind, having an amputated leg and living with kidney failure, and the joy he eventually found because of them.
When he woke up blind, Westmoreland said that he was scared, but a saying from his mother helped him stay strong.
“I sat on the edge of my bed, petrified to even move, and every ‘What if?’ ran though my head,” Westmoreland said. “Then somewhere in the back of my head, I heard the whisper. ‘God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.’ It was my mother’s voice. It was the first time I was absolutely certain of it.”
Westmoreland said that he wanted to stay independent even with blindness.
He said that he learned he needed help in order to be an independent person.
He moved from New York, where he lived before becoming blind, to Tupelo, Mississippi, and lived at the Reach Center for the Blind for seven months.
“It was the place that nurtured me and allowed me to fail, essentially,” Westmoreland said.
He later moved back to New York, where he learned that he had an infection in his foot that would need to be amputated.
The preparatory tests for this surgery would also result in his kidneys shutting down.
“In the course of three days, I was going to lose my leg and my kidneys,” Westmoreland said. “It was a bit much.”
Westmoreland said that he heard his mother’s voice again, telling him that “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.”
He received the amputation and began two months of rehabilitation, during one month of which he learned how to use a prosthetic leg.
Westmoreland said that everything that happened to him resulted in his heart changing. He said that he realized that material things are not as important as people are.
“When you’re blind and can’t see those things, they just don’t mean as much anymore,” Westmoreland said. “And when you’re put in a situation where you are truly dependent on someone just to get food or go to the bathroom, you learn that it’s not the things in life that are important, it’s the people around you.”
In 2012, Westmoreland went into the filmmaking business with his friend Miles Doleac. In 2014, the pair released “The Historian,” which won “Best First Feature Film,” “Best Actor,” and “Best Supporting Actor” at the 2014 Long Island International Film Expo.
Westmoreland said that the main point of his presentation was that people must be open to change.
“My point of all of this, is that we have to accept and be willing to change, no matter what struggles we’re given,” Westmoreland said. “Some of us have hearing impairments, some of us have physical and mobility challenges, some of us just have troubles in life.”
“If we’re not willing to make the changes necessary; if we allow fear to keep us from being what we can be, we stop being. We’re just existing. Good things can be found in bad struggles.”
Westmoreland said that his experiences have made him realize that happiness can be found in the hardest and darkest of times.
“I am a diabetic. I am totally blind. I have an amputated leg. I have complete kidney failure, and I am only alive at this moment due to dialysis three times a week,” Westmoreland said. “I am also completely grateful for every one of those conditions. They are a constant reminder to me of how much joy can be found in the struggle of living.”
Chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr. said that Westmoreland’s story is one that should inspire others to strive to succeed despite obstacles.
“I think it’s really important for all of us to remember the challenges and achievements in low-incident populations that are labeled ‘disabled,’ ” Hawkins said. “I think what we heard today was more about ability than disability. Mack represents an inspiration for all of us.
“He has certainly demonstrated that he can turn challenges into opportunities, and with every opportunity to fail, inherently, there is an opportunity to succeed.”
Aubrey Toole, a senior biomedical sciences major from Pace, Florida, said that she was touched by Westmoreland’s story.
“The speaker was very inspiring for me and my life, with every struggle that I face,” Toole said.