Hi, my name is Vanessa Cullen and I am very pleased to meet you!
I live in one half of a suburban duplex in Sydney, Australia, with my cat Yoda.
By day I own and manage an interior architecture studio; Forward Thinking Design, where we design restaurants, shops and other commercial premises. By early morning, and of an evening, I swim/bike/run/lift/yoga, experiment in my plant based kitchen, hang out with family and friends, and work on launching this social enterprise morethanpkd.com.
I was born in 1981 and am the eldest of three children with a middle sister and a younger brother. My Dad is English and Mum is second generation Italian. At two years of age I was diagnosed with Nephrotic Syndrome and was in and out of hospital for years until entering ongoing remission around the age of ten. Between my standard Aussie diet, fluid retention, stunted growth and steroid treatment, I was a heavily obese child. Thankfully my parents encouraged us to play plenty of sport and my competitive nature drove me to represent my schools and clubs in soccer, swimming, golf, netball and hockey, preventing my weight issue from spiralling out of control.
My upbringing was loving but extremely tough as I was exposed to alcoholism, abuse and mental illness within our extended family. I learned resilience and took refuge in my sports and my studies; excelling as an A grade student.
I was an awkward teenager and my academic achievements did not help me fit in at high school. I was badly bullied, grew bored of competitive swimming, put on more weight and became deeply depressed. During my last year of secondary school my sister suffered a sudden and catastrophic brain haemorrhage as a result of an Arteriovenous Malformation. For a long time we didn’t know if she would live and if she did, what condition she would be in. Mum and Dad stayed by her side whilst I took on a significant share of looking after my brother and I. This experience wore heavily but forced me to be strong and self sufficient as I balanced home responsibilities with studying for my final exams.
After learning to walk and function again, my sister then suffered a stroke. Again we went through the trauma of wondering if we might lose her and again she was forced to rebuild her world from scratch. About this time my G.P and university counsellor both agreed that I was suffering from Clinical Depression.
This sounds like a terrible story so far but there is one way in which it isn’t. I didn’t stay on antidepressants for long because one of my core beliefs was galvanised by the experience of what happened to my sister. She went from being the most popular, intelligent, beautiful and athletic girl, to being ravaged by her own body; changing her life and identity forever! I had always believed that life is fragile and fleeting, but this experience elevated this belief to a conviction. It took the best part of the next decade to build within me but I now really understand that we only have this moment, this breath, right here and now, to make the most of everything. This gave me courage and a sense of urgency to seize every opportunity with both hands and if it weren’t for all these tough experiences, I would never have learned the resilience, strength and motivation that has made me who I am today.
In 2003 I started my interior architecture business and have built it steadily from being a ‘one woman band’ to being a successful company. It hasn’t been easy, and time and time again I’ve wanted to just give it up, but being my own boss has given me the freedom to live by my own moral compass and follow my dreams.
These days I am a much happier person than I was during my teens and twenties. A huge positive change in my life resulted from a playful bet made with one of my best friends a few years ago. I was complaining about having tried every diet, and not being able to lose weight no matter how much I exercised, when he lightened the mood by wagering that I could not go two weeks without pasta, baked goods and starchy carbs! I never shy away from a good challenge so I took him on and, to my astonishment, I suddenly started to drop some SERIOUS weight! I continued this lifestyle change past the two weeks and was soon able to get up earlier, stopped having to fight off massive energy slumps at 3pm each day, my skin became clear, my yeast and digestive issues vanished and my emotions became balanced. I had never felt so clear headed and energetic. Experimentation with reintroducing different carbs, one at a time, revealed that highly processed and wheat based foods made me feel unwell again whilst gluten free, minimally processed carbs like sweet potatoes and rice were fine. Over the next 18 months I also quit refined sugar and dropped from 72kg to 53kg (I am 5″1). I experimented with High Fat Low Carb for months but couldn’t seem to eat the prescribed amount of fats as I find fat pretty revolting. I then went to the other end of the spectrum by trying raw vegan and fruitarian eating but this didn’t suit me as my sweet tooth led to me eating too much, too often and putting on weight again. After turning Pescetarian for about 6 months I eventually discovered that eating seaweed was a great taste alternative and was finally free to go 100% wholefoods plant based! It took some work to rebuild my gut flora but now I feel better than ever before and have immersed myself in learning everything I can about plant based nutrition. Plant based is the way of the future and I am entirely convinced, by the scientific evidence, that it is the healthiest way to live a sustainable and compassionate existence. But I digress and there’s more to this story…
Life sure can be a bitch! A few weeks out from my Jujutsu black belt grading, and with my sights set on stepping in the ring for my first Muay Thai fight, I ended up in hospital passing blood. I was discharged with the very vague information that an MRI had found that both my kidneys were ‘polycystic’, and of course, I then frantically googled this for an explanation (as you do these days). If you have PKD then you probably know what happened next… my world fell apart. My G.P confirmed Polycystic Kidney Disease and sent me to a Nephrologist. After five years of living, breathing and teaching martial arts, my black belt journey was over and I was advised to never participate, let alone compete, in contact sports again.
After gaining a positive body image I was faced with a future of grossly enlarged kidneys.
After finally embracing life I was confronted with terminal illness.
I’ve been living with the knowledge of having PKD for about three years now. I am only in Stage 2 and don’t have high blood pressure or significant loss of function yet. I have embraced an alkaline, wholefoods, plant based diet to give my body the best chance I can, yet my Nephrologist guesses I may only have a decade before things start to really decline. He can’t reliably make predictions because I am the first in my family to have it and thankfully everyone else has tested clear. I hope that age will get me before PKD does, that I’ll get a transplant if I need it, or that a treatment will become available in time. The way I see it, this is just one more reason to live every day to the max!
With martial arts no longer an option, I started entering trail running races, I bought a bike, and with the voice of my first P.T ringing in my ears I thought “You could ‘try’ ‘athlon’?”. So I did!
In my first year I enjoyed my first trail run win and two sprint triathlons, before an investigatory laparoscopy turned into a surprise bladder resection and removal of severe Endometriosis. I never knew I had Endo as I had always put the symptoms down to everything else that was going on with my body!
Nevertheless, none of this gets me down for long. I firmly believe that everyone suffers but there’s enough good stuff in this world to just keep moving on. It might seem strange to hear, after all that, but most days I am happier than I have ever been before.
By sharing my story, and collaborating with leading experts, I hope to give inspiration to others; not just to those who share my trials, but also to anyone interested in clean, wholefoods plant based nutrition, lifestyle health and fitness. I believe that life is greater than the constraints we place upon ourselves or that are forced upon us. We should not be defined by disease, and what we CAN’T do, but rather, by what we CAN do. Life isn’t always fair or kind, but every moment is still another opportunity for laughter, friendship, love, sweat, achievement, bananas, chai, the sun on our faces and the breeze in our hair!
I look forward to sharing with you.
Would you like to support morethanpkd.com? If so, please follow this link: https://www.gofundme.com/morethanpkd-com or make contact via: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sponsorship packages are available.
Charity Activities/ Further Info
For the last ten years I have been a financial supporter of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). This amazing organisation won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and is the worlds leading independent provider of humanitarian aid. Their work in developing and providing RUF’s (Ready-to-Use Foods) in combating infant and child malnutrition, in the third world, particularly moves me.
I am also the inaugural Ambassador for PKD Australia.
Stay tuned for more information…
I am open to speaking and writing opportunities. I have previously contributed in this capacity to The Frank Team, The Department of Education, Parramatta Sun, A Current Affair and ABC News 24.
Sponsorship and Product/Venue Reviews
I am open to sponsorship and requests to provide honest reviews where these are appropriate to my ethics and cause. Here is morethanpkd.com’s crowd funding site: http://www.gofundme.com/9k789o
Qualifications and Achievements
Diploma Remedial Massage
Accredited Jujitsu Assistant Trainer
Postgraduate Diploma Museum Studies
Finalist NSW Business Chamber Awards – Young Entrepreneur 2012
Winner Western Sydney Awards For Business Excellence – Female Entrepreneur of the Year 2012