Conette arrives every day to Becoming Independent, bounding into the building with a smile on her face and enough enthusiasm to wake a hibernating bear. On either side of her, she supports herself with a silver and red walker which is strewn with her purse and bags full of snacks to last her the whole workweek. “You bring your whole kitchen in with you today?” I ask as she finds a seat. “Almost!” she responds with a chuckle. Watching her socialize with her peers and the staff, one would never know the traumatic obstacles she has overcome in her 29 years of life. I asked Conette if she would share her story with me on how she has overcome so much in life, and where she found the courage to do so.
Conette was born with cerebral palsy. She grew up using canes and walkers to support her while she walked. Although she needed these supports, this did not stop Conette from enjoying a normal childhood. However, when she was just seven years old, Conette’s life was changed forever. She was out in her neighborhood, enjoying an afternoon with the other children when a young boy accidentally lit the hem of her dress on fire, setting her ablaze. Her neighbor saw Conette and the fire. He immediately rushed to her, throwing himself onto the fire, which engulfed her. Conette was taken to the emergency room, and then was flown to St. Francis hospital in San Francisco. Upon her arrival, doctors informed her family that she had a 50% chance of surviving her burns and that her lungs were so damaged, she would need a ventilator to help her breathe. Thankfully, Conette made it through and for the next few months; she would endure “hundreds of surgeries” to help repair and graft her severely burned skin, which covered over half of her body.
I asked Conette if she remembered being burned, or the early days of her time in the hospital. She told me no, she doesn’t have much recollection from that time. Still a child, Conette’s life had been completely changed before it had really started. I asked her how differently she was treated by people and how it affected her. “Other kids were told to stay away from me…it made me feel lonely, like no one liked me”, she explained. Conette spent most of her childhood and teens, feeling like an outsider. Although her appearance had changed, Conette’s spirit did not. She persevered and remained strong through her childhood and teens, taking the initiative to start conversations with people, just to be friendly. It wasn’t until her 20’s that she felt she was accepted and treated normally by her adult counterparts.
When Conette turned 21, she had three more surgeries to correct her legs, which were turned inwards due to her cerebral palsy. As well, at age 27 she had surgery to repair a slip disc in her spine caused by a fall. “I didn’t want another surgery” she said, “It’s so hard on the body.”
Today, Conette works and makes a modest living working at Becoming Independent. She lives at home with her mother, has a boyfriend, and enjoys baking and cooking.
There is a saying, how a person handles hardship in their life, determines a lot about that persons character. As someone who has known Conette for over a year, I would say that she is one of the most courageous and inspiring people I have met. She has overcome several traumatic experiences, and has left them in the past. These experiences may have changed her life, but they do not define her.
At the end of the interview, I asked Conette, “Where do you think all the courage came from to help you through those traumatic experiences?” She simply replied, “My heart.”
– Alyssa Soares