I had always dreamed of going to Paris, and this summer, my dream came to fruition. I was ready to experience many memorable events like eating delicious food, tasting exquisite wine, and seeing beautiful world landmarks. What I didn’t expect was for a few french words to change the trajectory of my life. It all occurred at a very unlikely place, the Champs Elysee metro stop. Heatheran, my close friend and agent, and I had arrived at our stop. We stepped out of the train and began walking toward the exit. As we were exiting, I noticed a mother and her son walking toward us. After taking a closer look, I realized that the boy had a debilitating limp that made it difficult to walk. “You are not alone,” I thought to myself. Difficulty walking was something I was very familiar with. I greeted them with a smile and said, “Bonjour”. The mother responded, “Bonjour.” The boy looked up but quickly and shyly looked away. As I passed them, I heard his mother say in French, “Did you see that guy? Did you see his hands? He has a disability just like you, and he looked so confident and happy.” Initially, I didn’t think too hard about what she said, but then my mind started to run and it hit me. For the majority of my life I felt like I was constantly battling the world. It was David versus the preconceptions of society. I felt an insatiable desire to prove to everyone that I was capable of anything. I felt confused not seeing any disabled people in positions of success. I felt aimless without a disabled role model to look up to. I felt isolated in the struggle against Moebius Syndrome.
I was born in New Jersey to first generation Colombian immigrants. At birth, I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition called Moebius Syndrome. I was born with partial upper limbs, no feet, and a cranial nerve defect. At the age of five, I had surgeries in my eyes, mouth, and left hand to alleviate Moebius related symptoms. The bright lights and shiny sharp tools of the operating room were intimidating, but this was when my inner strength awakened. I came to realize that my life was extraordinary and I had to be brave in the face of adversity. Those surgeries, without a doubt, made me stronger and provided me with the courage to accept my reality. Shortly after, in the morning while putting on my prosthetics, I realized that if I ever wanted to walk, run, or play fútbol, I would have to put on my prosthetics everyday for the rest of my life. At that moment, life presented me with two options; I could allow myself to be consumed by self pity, or I could accept my reality and refuse to be defeated.
I never set limits for what I could do when growing up. In elementary school, I refused to be treated differently and rejected help from well intentioned occupational and physical therapists. I taught myself to write with two hands, play fútbol with prosthetics, and perform in a band with soul. Part of introspective growth involves overcoming personal barriers and facing the harsh realities of life. During high school, I was overwhelmed by the fact that there were no blueprints of success to emulate as a disabled person. My future appeared unclear, and I was unaware of my true potential. Academically, I struggled in chemistry but was fascinated by biology. This fascination continued at Kean University and fueled my interest in understanding the underlying chemical principles that govern biological processes. Consequently, I majored in both biology and chemistry allowing me to enjoy classes such as organic chemistry and thermodynamics despite my initial struggles in high school chemistry. Furthermore, I took part in summer research programs at The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Brown University’s Department of Chemistry. These experiences alongside my ambitions encouraged me to pursue a PhD in chemistry.
Working in a laboratory involves conducting experiments that require a high level of dexterity which are difficult to complete without fingers. I struggled; nevertheless, empowered by my past successes, I never gave up and stayed true to my vision. I persevered, adapted, and overcame the technical challenges allowing my research to flourish. Afterwards, I was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. On May 28th, I will be completing my PhD and graduating from Brown University. Initially, my plan was to work as a senior scientist in the pharmaceutical industry; little did I know that my trip to Paris was going to change my future.
I often remember the exchange I had with the mother and her son by the metro… I remember the mother’s smile. I remember her son’s low self-esteem, timidity, and uncertainty. I was that boy twenty years ago; since then, I have learned from my experiences which enable me to place trust in myself and my vision. A vision designed to defy and shatter all societal preconceptions of people with disabilities. I now know what I am destined to do in this world and my purpose in life. It is to share my successes and struggles. It is to motivate people to be relentless in the pursuit of their dreams. It is to inspire those who were told they can’t be great. It is to be limitless.