This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
My life changed forever on December 10, 2005.
I boarded a plane in Abuja, Nigeria, with 60 of my classmates, to fly home from boarding school for Christmas. With 15 minutes left in the flight, the pilot announced that we would be landing at the airport shortly. There was some seemingly normal turbulence—and then it progressed dramatically.
Passengers were confused and nervous, and a woman in the back of the plane screamed, triggering panic. It was clear that the plane was malfunctioning. I felt a kind of awe, as it was impossible to reconcile what was happening to reality. I reached across the aisle to hold my friend’s hand, and we prayed. I remember hearing a loud, scraping metal sound, and after that I don’t remember anything else.
Five weeks later, I opened my eyes from a medically-induced coma in Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. While I was in the coma, my mother sang to me, and told me what had happened and where I was. So when I woke up I was fully aware that I had survived a plane crash, and that I was being taken care of.
Third-degree burns covered over 65% of my body. I lost muscle mass and surface skin on my legs, arms, head, and upper body. Doctors harvested skin from my torso for skin grafts, so that I wouldn’t be as prone to infections and sepsis.
For the first few months of recovery, my body was numb. As I healed, feeling returned, and with it came pain and itching. I suffered insomnia because of the discomfort. But the more pain I felt, the more alive I felt. I became curious as to what happened to my classmates and friends. I assumed everyone else had survived, like me. Four months after the accident, the truth was made known to me: the airplane crash had killed 107 of the 109 passengers.
I fell into a depression. My mom was my rock and pulled me out of the pits. I leaned into my faith, and onto my family. Music played a large part in my recovery too. It was a wonderful way to distract myself from the pain.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted my life to mean something, especially to the children who passed away, and to their families. I wanted to live in a way that would make them proud. I stopped asking “why” things happened the way that they did, because I knew that I would never get an answer. Instead, I found purpose in my survival, and decided to live as much and as well as possible, to commemorate the memory of those lost.
After seven months in the hospital in South Africa, I relocated to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas, where my reconstruction began. I faced countless surgeries over the next two years. I came to Galveston in a wheelchair, but I was able to get a lot of my mobility back. By 2009, I was walking, running, and swimming.
Then in 2010 I attended the Phoenix World Burn Congress in Galveston. It’s a gathering hosted by the Phoenix Society, which is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering anyone affected by a burn injury. Before that I had only met burn survivors who were my age or younger, fellow patients at the hospital. But at the event I saw adults with scars who were doing well for themselves, and enjoying life. They showed me there is life after burns.
Once I felt more like myself, I began to think about what I would have done if the accident had never happened. I had always been hugely interested in economics, and finishing school made the most sense to me. I graduated from a high school in Houston and proceeded to major in economics at the University of Saint Thomas in Texas. The school was so accommodating, and worked with my surgery schedule. I graduated summa cum laude in 2015 and delivered the commencement speech.
The next year my friend signed me up for “America’s Got Talent.” I had grown up loving to sing, but didn’t think my voice was competitive enough to make a career out of it. And, I knew that Hollywood was image focused, and I thought my scars would not be accepted. To my surprise, the show contacted me and asked me to move forward, and I took the risk.
“America’s Got Talent” gave me a platform to share my story and voice, and inspire others with my journey as a burn survivor. I was exposed to burn communities I didn’t know existed. And I reached children who were struggling through what I had endured. I was able to give them hope, and let them see that it is possible to have any life that you want after the burns.
As a burn survivor, the hardest part about reintegrating into society is acceptance. My accident happened when I was 16 years old, and I didn’t go back to high school until I was almost 20. I was essentially an adult and already had certain ideologies in place: things I believed about myself and life that kept me grounded and positive no matter who I encountered. It’s much tougher for children, because they’re still trying to figure out who they are. It’s easy for them to believe what other people say about them.
The first time I saw my reflection after the accident—although everything just looked so different—I still somehow saw Kechi in that mirror. I realized that whatever it was that made me me had to be more than my physical appearance. My scars do not define me.
Whether you have visible or invisible scars, you are more than your scars. You are more than what people can see. I’ve come this far, and I know I can go further. I have so much more strength and resilience inside myself than I ever knew.
Today Okwuchi is an advocate for the Phoenix Society. You can learn more about the organization for burn survivors here.
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