Kyla Cullain is one of those people that you fall in love with the moment you meet her. She is bright, funny, beautiful and very loving. What you wouldn’t ever recognize are the physical and mental struggles that she has had to overcome, and yes, still work through today. She is a woman who has learned to move through some of life’s greatest challenges and she shows up for those who need help. You will come to love Kyla the way so many people have.
Tell us a little about yourself
I grew up in a very small town called Munster Hamlet, the youngest of three; and the “bonus” child. My parents, despite both facing some recent and very serious illnesses, still live and run their business from our childhood home. I have to admit, almost with guilt, I had an amazing upbringing. A neighborhood with an almost community-parenting feel, and before the technology boom where kids were all happily out until the streetlights came on.
With not too much to do, many of us became very competitive athletes. Most of my adolescent social life and identity was dedicated to provincial level athletics; and I greatly miss that high intensity team atmosphere. My post-secondary education was a period of exploration to say the least. I ventured from one-year studying towards a Bachelor of Science, to completing a degree in Advertising Design & Marketing from the International Academy of Design in Toronto, to moving back home and working in a veterinary hospital. Reflecting back, science, the arts and caring for others are still three of my biggest drivers. I eventually returned to school as a “mature” student to achieve my Baccalaureate of Science in Nursing and have never looked back.
In 2013, while working towards my Master of Nursing (yes, the perpetual student!) my husband and I decided to start a home accessibility company as a side venture. With a mix between increased demand and loving what we were doing, we took the plunge and are now running Next Step Transitions full time. I have never experienced so many ups and downs; but we both feel the work is worth every effort and emotion.
We have three furry children – a dog and two cats that are all from wonderful rescues. As much as it has caused some controversy, I am a pretty outspoken advocate for animal adoption and for animal rights altogether. I am a firm believer in giving a voice to those that do not have one. I’m also very simply, completely at my happiest when I’m with my (or anyone else’s) animals!
It’s also not very shocking when you get to know me, but I’m a total nerd. Science literacy is something you can regularly hear me speaking/ranting about, and I’m fervently evidence-based in most things I do. As science is also a framework for thought, there’s nothing more gratifying to me than to learn something new that can completely change my opinion.
One of my other great loves is travelling. My off-the-beaten path experiences have caused me to realize how completely insignificant we are in this massive galaxy – while simultaneously being fundamentally significant to one another. This is an uncomfortable thought for many, but it fills me with wonder, excitement and dedication to those truly important connections in our life. For the amount of time I’ve spent in school, my most profound learning experiences have absolutely been acquired while travelling.
Who inspires you in your life? Who do you look up to? And why?
I’m so fortunate to be close with both my parents. Some of the best conversations I have had have been at 3am, in the living room with tea, trying to figure out “what it’s all about”. (It’s the hokey pokey, by the way). We’ve developed very different philosophies in life, but our core values are persistently dedicated to bettering oneself – and hopefully, the world in some capacity. They both came from very poor, large families in Montreal and have worked tremendously hard to build the life they have today. Growing up, everything was a lesson to be learned, and it generally revolved around hard work (my dad) or compassion (my mom). They are also two of the most generous people I have known; who denounce recognition for any type of kindness they regularly shed. As my husband and I are now work partners, I have the utmost admiration for the sacrifices they made in running and building their company together while raising three kids. Although I’m sure it did at times, I can’t remember a time where the company came before us. They created a wonderful life, a successful business and a mantra of love and always helping others. I hope we can emulate this down the road.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome in your life? What did you do to move through them? What did you learn? What do you wish to share with others?
I have battled clinical depression and insomnia. I continue to work through Seasonal Affective Disorder, and have developed some excellent vacation strategies to cope. However, my greatest challenge is actually a devastating back injury. After reviewing an MRI that depicted the herniation of three lumbar discs and a full compression of my S-1 nerve, I also found out that I was the lucky winner of degenerative disc disease. I underwent an unsuccessful back surgery that has still left me with sporadic but paralyzing pain, as well as numbness in my right leg that has led to intermittent “drop-foot”. This is fun for someone already well versed in the clumsy arena! To add to the complications, my follow-up scans showed multiple tarlov cysts around my spine, which are essentially bundles of nerves that most specialists will not touch. There have been days where depression has resurfaced in direct relation to my mobility challenges. I can no longer participate in some of the things that used to bring me the most amount of joy. I lost my identity as an athlete. It completely changed my life in terms of how I interacted with my world, my friends, my family and most importantly my husband.
I knew I had to retrain my brain to stay functioning and positive, and this happened to manifest through a practice of gratitude, meditation and contrast. When my leg gives out, or when I need to spend a day filleted on the floor, I try and remember to be grateful that I can actually still move, that I can still work, and that I can still play. I continue to alter or slightly modify the attachments I had to my identity. For example, rather than continuing to be upset about not playing my old contact sports, I’m trying new ones. I’ve become a certified scuba diver, and have since explored parts of the oceans very few have seen. I practice yoga and some days I dance like a maniac for no reason, and gratefully suffer the consequences for that catharsis the next day. I have learned that there are many others worse-off than myself. I’ve also learned that in this very short life, I have a choice to dwell in my pain or to relish the ability to feel. Of course, there are some days where I need to re-convince myself of all of the above and I swear and cry and grieve. There are also days where I do feel fabulous!
I certainly feel that I have a much greater understanding and empathy for the people that we get to help every day in our work. It’s also made me much more aware that people can also “look” fine, but like all of us, there’s usually much more going on than anyone knows.
What are you most proud of?
This took quite a lot of thought. I suppose I am proud of the first time I jumped on a plane and headed to Sri Lanka after the tsunami to help in the disaster relief. It was the first time I had really travelled, let alone worked abroad. My heart was shaken to the core and it solidified my love of nursing and sharing in this chaotic human experience. Before leaving, I remember my husband wondering if this would change me in any way. My father immediately responded that it would only change me for a short period time, before falling back in to our old routines, as people do. I’m not sure why this very realistic observation upset me, but it did. From that moment, every time I’ve felt the routine setting in, or a lack of active appreciation for the basic things we take for granted (e.g. running water), I know it’s time to step outside my comfort zone again. These areas have ranged from volunteering locally, presenting to 4th year nursing students on how to grow and share their skills, or going abroad again to help where needed. More recently, this took me to a medical tent in Haiti, in a camp of over 45,000 internally displaced people. It’s not necessarily the work that I’m proud of, but the commitment to push myself to embrace being changed by both the simple and the extraordinary.
What do you want your older self to know?
When I first read this, I immediately wished the question were rephrased to tell my younger self something! Which is perfect. I would want my older self to know that you can’t go back in time. That where I am today – is exactly where I decided to be. Every decision, every mistake, every adventure, was in my (hopefully) wrinkled hands.
I guess I better start living with this purpose!
“I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
“If you’re done learning, you might as well be done.” – my dad
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