KECHI IS A SMILE
By Erika June Christina Laing
Originally published on First Angel Media ~ 05.06.19
Kechi is a smile. Kechi is a laugh. She is a voice, a lyric, a message. She shares hope, demonstrates strength, and manifests bravery. Her charisma emanates from her core like an infectious melody. Around her, you will sense ease, peace, and tranquility. Once you’ve met her for two seconds, the last thing you will ever consider are the scars that mottle her face and body. Her story is one of a transformation of faith, the fortitude of mothers and family, and the healing power of music.
When I spoke with Kechi via video chat, she was enjoying some down time at home between her many speaking and musical engagements. She wore a funky tweed cap characteristic of her smart sense of style. Her kitchen lay in the background, the fridge covered in magnets from a life fully lived. At one point, her lady cat Kiara walked in front of the laptop camera; we laughed at the interruption. “She likes attention,” Kechi said affably. She gingerly plucked Kiara from the keyboard and moved her off screen.
Kechi is no stranger to attention herself. She has experienced a leap of celebrity since becoming a finalist on not one but two seasons of America’s Got Talent, through which her unique story and buoyant energy touched millions. What is special about Kechi is the way she has transformed all the new attention into a laser beam to help others, people suffering from burns, bullies, addiction, and other afflictions. Her gigs are not like most; they all have a particular angle of inspiration and hope. Over the next two months she’ll be hitting the road to sing and speak at a Firefighters Kids Camp, the Talented Girls Conference, and at a fundraiser for the Houston Children’s Museum. She’ll also be making a stop in my home town, Pittsburgh, PA, where she will perform at Impact Christian Church. Associate Pastor Bill Balbach is thrilled to have Kechi come. He feels she exemplifies how “everyone has a different story, and no matter what circumstances in life they may face, they will see there is freedom and opportunity in not giving up.”
Kechi Okwuchi is a true survivor, one of two from a horrific plane crash that took the lives of 107 passengers in 2005 when she was just sixteen. She and sixty of her classmates from boarding school were on their way home to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, for Christmas, jovial and excited for the holiday break. As Sosoliso Flight 1145 made its final descent, Kechi noticed turbulence that seemed normal at first, but quickly became chaotic.
“A woman in the back of the plane screamed,” she said, “triggering panic.”
Unbeknownst to the passengers, the flight crew was battling with sudden changes in precipitation and low visibility. At about 120 feet above the ground, the captain still could not see the unlit runway. He called for a missed approach, intending to go around to attempt a second landing, but the plane was already 100 feet below the altitude at which such decisions are safely made. Shearing winds arrived suddenly.
Inside the plane, Kechi reached across the aisle and grabbed the hand of her friend Toke, whose face was stricken with a fear she thought must mirror her own, though what she felt inside was more like a suspended kind of awe. She wanted to pray. She decided to pray. But before the words came to her, there was a loud metallic scraping noise. Then, there was nothing at all.
The tail of the plane had struck a concrete drainage culvert, ripping it off the main body in an explosion of flames that slid down the taxiway leaving a 400-foot trail of wreckage. When Kechi’s charred body was found breathing, they whisked her away to Johannesburg, South Africa, where her mother, Ijeoma, continuously sat by her bedside throughout a 5-week medically induced coma, speaking and singing to her unconscious daughter.
When I asked Kechi to describe the coma, she said, “I’m floating in this place that’s cloudy and there’s not really much going on. It’s dark but not uncomfortable. It’s not a bad darkness, just like a blankness. But somewhere inside of that, there are moments I remember.”
She paused, swiveling her gaze around the room as she searched for words to describe the unusual experience.
“There was awareness in my senses. I couldn’t see anything, but I could sense a lot of things going on around me sometimes and one of the things was definitely my mom’s voice. Her voice is something I probably will hear in whatever state I’m in because it is so familiar, and I love her. She would talk to me constantly, and it was repetitive, day after day after day.”
Ijeoma stood amid the beeping machines, wires, and tubes that helped keep her daughter alive. In latex gloves and a plastic hospital apron, she would lean towards her daughter and sing and talk. Ijeoma would say, “Kechi, you are in a hospital right now. You were in a plane crash, but you are going to be OK. You are in South Africa now getting treatment at Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg. You’re going to be fine. God is with you and I’ll pray for you.”
“I heard this constantly, on repeat,” Kechi said, “so I opened my eyes knowing just that.”
Because Ijeoma had brought so much music into the hospital room, Kechi woke up knowing something extra.
“One particular song I remember, I couldn’t have known before the accident because my mom had learned it from her mom while I was in boarding school, so that was a song that I knew the melody and lyrics and everything when I woke up.”
Ijeoma also played Kechi new releases from her daughter’s favorite musicians.
“Destiny’s Child, Westlife, I woke up knowing these songs that I’d never heard before, and that’s how the nurses and doctors realized that in that comatose state people might actually be receptive of things going on around them.”
She said Milpark Hospital has even implemented a program of singing by the bedside of comatose patients because of her experience.
“I thought that was the most beautiful thing,” said Kechi.
“I’ve always been a mommy’s girl for sure,” Kechi admitted when I asked her to describe the importance of her family life. “I went everywhere with her. She used to call me her purse because I was just always hanging on to her, everywhere, everywhere.” She smiled as she recounted her memories.
Kechi was an only child for eleven years before her little sister, Tara, showed up. During those early years, Ijeoma worked as a banker in Nigeria and would sometimes surprise Kechi by pulling her out of school to tag along on short business excursions, stopping to visit cousins along the way.
“Those were the best days, right?” I asked.
“The best ever!” she exclaimed. The youthful gaiety of her declaration transported me back to my own days as a little girl when my mother would do the same.
Kechi has always been close with her entire family, especially her parents, but of her mother she said, “We’ve always had this amazing bond, and my dad, he’s always known it too.”
After the accident, when Kechi was still living and no one could understand how, Kechi’s father Mike turned to his wife and said, “You know she’s alive because of you.”
Kechi feels similarly. “She was my motivation for doing the things I needed to do to get better. I knew that seeing me progress every day made her happy and so I wanted her to know that I’m doing my best and I wanted her to smile. I did all these things because of her, then eventually I started doing them for myself. She is such a big part of why I’m here and why I recovered in a very whole way. She’s my rock.”
When Kechi woke up from her 5-week coma, she awoke to a lifelong of recovery. Third-degree burns covered 65% of her body. Bandages covered her from head to toe, like you only see in the movies. She began undergoing skin grafting surgeries, where doctors harvested tissue from her torso and applied it to her legs, arms, head, and upper body. But she didn’t feel any pain. Not yet. It would be three months before she healed enough for feeling to return, and when it did, it was the pain and itching of nerve endings regenerating through her reconstructing flesh. There are multiple types of itching that burn patients experience but most cannot be soothed by antihistamines because the cause is a malfunction of the nerves, which are misreporting irritation to the central nervous system. It is an internal itch that cannot be scratched.
“The more pain I felt, the more alive I felt,” she has said in other interviews, but still she suffered great insomnia because of the discomfort and deluge of medications.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she told me. “The pain, the itching, everything, just my mind being wide awake, not being able to turn myself off, and the combination of medicines inside me. The times I would sleep during the day would be drug-induced, so I wasn’t getting rest. I just wasn’t. I was strung out, I was exhausted, frustrated, crying, just sick and tired. I remember being just done.”
Not even Ijeoma could reach her struggling daughter, so she leaned on the strength of her own mother for guidance.
Kechi’s grandmother came to the hospital. First, she taught her granddaughter a breathing exercise to help calm her. “Starting from your toes, squeeze and let go and breathe.”
Then she said, “Kechi, I think you should pray.”
“I remember being kind of mad,” Kechi said. Internally, she questioned how prayer could possibly help the physical issue she was having. “I just need sleep, how is that going to help?” she wondered loudly in her head.
“Before the accident, my faith was really very derived,” Kechi explained. “It was more like whatever my parents believed, I believed. I didn’t really have anything personal with God, any deep direct connection with Him. I was a Christian because I was baptized as one and my family identifies as such and so I, by proxy, was also a Christian. Did I believe in God? Yes. Did I believe in Jesus? Yes. I believed that all this didn’t just happen randomly, all this stuff around us. Something bigger than the world had to make the world, and so it made sense logically and that’s as far as it went for me.”
Then the plane crash occurred.
“When the accident happened, I knew it was a miracle that I was alive. I knew it wasn’t anything that I did. There’s nothing I could have done to make me survive. That’s not possible”
Kechi felt there was definitely something divine going on, but still she wasn’t interested in having something personal with God. She knew so many people were out there praying on her behalf, that her mother was by her side praying all the time.
“I thought it was OK the way things were, with my mom as this middle man, interceding on my behalf to God. For the first three months of my recovery, I didn’t pray personally. I was OK with her doing the prayers. I thought that because someone else is praying for me, I’m going to be okay.”
But once the insomnia took hold of her, she began to feel a shift.
“I realized that if I wanted to heal in every way, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, I’m going to have to have something more than this relationship with God through my mom. I draw my strength from her, but she’s drawing her strength from someone else. She also runs out of strength; she’s human. So it might serve me to look for a direct connection to that unlimited strength.”
Kechi specified that this insight did not come to her supernaturally, but because of the events in her life, in particular in her struggle to overcome the insomnia. After four straight days of zero sleep, Kechi and her grandmother had a discussion about God. Her grandmother told Kechi that she had the wrong image of who God is as “a guy in the sky judging us and making sure we stay in line.”
“That’s not who he is,” her grandmother told her, “He loves us. He made us.” She told Kechi that he is like a father, that Kechi’s father is the earthly representation of God and that this is the relationship He wants us to have with Him.
“Talk to God like you would talk to your actual dad,” Kechi recalled her grandmother’s advice. “Just talk. That’s what praying is. You’re talking to God, so just talk to Him and just see if it changes anything.”
And so that night, at her wits end after four days of sleeplessness with the doctors unable to deliver more medications, Kechi decided to try.
“I started talking, I started praying. I felt very silly at first but kept going. Then I found myself purging, crying, yelling at Him, saying everything on my mind, just talking to Him. Next thing I know I was opening my eyes and it was morning and my mom was next to me. I have no idea when I fell asleep, but I woke up feeling so good for the first time in a while.”
Kechi said it was the first time since the accident that she had slept without the aid of medication.
“That was super significant to me because that was a real result. I had this issue that had been bugging me and nothing helped so far. Logically, this is the only thing I did different that helped, so that got my attention. I wanted more access to this thing that actually allowed me to rest for the first time in a long while, and that’s how it started. My curiosity became personal.”
Kechi’s journey with faith was filled with ups and downs as she continued to face significant challenges. It was only after she got past her insomnia that she found out the truth of the accident, that none of her classmates survived, not even Toke. She was one of only two passengers left alive. She fell into a deep depression, leaning on her family, holding on to the rock that was her mother, and testing the boundaries of her faith, all while undergoing more skin grafts, enduring the pain and itch of nerve growth, and struggling through addiction to the morphine that had been necessary in the earlier stages of her recovery. It was in the darkness of these challenges that she understood the power of her faith.
“Life is going to be full of so many obstacles. It’s never going to be smooth sailing; that’s the whole point of living. For me, the one thing that allows me to sleep at night, even when things are not so good, is that peace from believing that everything’s going to be OK at some point. That definitely comes from not being the source of my power. Knowing that when I’m down and done, that there’s someone out there that I can lean onto, that’s who God is. It can’t be any other human being because we all have limits to our strength.”
Kechi is not evangelical in any way but explained her point of view with a clarity that comes from personal experience.
“If I was the end of my strength, if I believe in just me and what I can see and feel, then when I’m down, when I’m low and frustrated and just at the end of my rope, all that’s left out there is hopelessness. If I’m the end of my strength, if it ends with me and I can’t help me, then I’m done, I’m finished. I feel like that’s such a dangerous place to be, just in general.”
She then linked spirituality to mental health.
“That’s where you get people who just can’t get out of depression, can’t get out of a slump, can’t climb out of the darkness, can end up being suicidal. You can find yourself in that place because those feelings are tied to a hopelessness. That’s what comes from only believing in yourself.”
I asked Kechi what her advice is for someone who is facing a difficult recovery without the strength of faith that she now seems to hold so effortlessly.
“The one thing I think I can definitely say is, as someone who has doubted – not that I didn’t believe but I just didn’t think it was something that could help me in a real way – as someone who’s gone through that, I can say for sure that by seeking Him, the biggest thing its done for me is given me this unexplainable peace. For me, it comes down to that peace.”
If you haven’t experienced it yourself, it can be hard to imagine the slow progression of healing associated with burn recovery. There are many more layers of recuperation to work through than there are physical ones that have been lost. One excruciating moment that no one should have to face is the first time looking in the mirror after such traumatic physical alterations.
“Were you afraid?” I asked.
“Oh, definitely afraid. Oh my gosh.”
Kechi said her mother was terrified too, but they had different reasons.
“She was worried about how I’d feel when I saw how different I looked, for a reason, because I was very pretty, and I knew it. I loved to look good and she just knew this about her daughter and was so worried that if I didn’t look the way I like to look anymore, it would affect how I feel about myself.”
“My reason,” she contrasted, “was that I was very afraid of losing my personality in all this. I was afraid that if I see myself, I would lose everything I love about myself, my confidence, just being so lively and playful. I didn’t want to lose that. But I wanted to fix it now, so that if that did happen, I could start the process of healing and getting back to myself as soon as possible. For all my flaws, I liked who I was.”
Kechi bravely looked at her reflection.
“Although everything just looked so different,” she said, “I still somehow saw Kechi in that mirror.”
In a worldwide society so focused on physical appearances, and with so many people suffering body dysmorphia and myriad eating disorders as a result, it is encouraging to hear evidence that who we are is not essentially bound to how we look.
“That was very profound to me,” she said, “It was a split-second thing. Just looking at myself, the minute I could still see me, I just knew that, “Oh my God, this is actually amazing because that means that after I get out of this hospital, I can still wear the clothes I like to wear, I can still go places I like to go, I can still enjoy things I like to enjoy.””
Kechi felt a surge of relief that know she wouldn’t have to change.
“It made me realize that whatever made us who we are obviously has to go beyond the physical. If I still saw Kechi, even though I didn’t look like Kechi, that meant that whatever made Kechi who she is couldn’t come from anything on the surface. It had to be something shining from inside out.”
Kechi spent seven months in Milpark Hospital and later moved to Galveston, TX, in 2007 to begin a series of reconstructive surgeries at Shriners Hospital for Children. At the beginning, the surgery schedule was grueling. Knowing his daughter’s love for music, Kechi’s father bought her a karaoke machine to help distract her. It became a vital activity for Kechi. Her first experiences with singing were in a children’s choir back in Nigeria before the accident, but after she woke up from her coma it seemed to her and everyone else that her voice was somehow different, somehow better. For Kechi that meant she could sing all the songs she had always dreamed of singing. It was her therapy, something she did to keep a grip on her sanity. She sang constantly just to get her through the surgeries.
“That was my escape. I would just have mini concerts in the house. It went on like that for years.”
Eventually, she began to flourish in all ways. Though she arrived in Texas in a wheelchair, she was walking, running, and even swimming within two years. By 2009, she was at a point of wellness that her father asked her one day if she wanted to go back to school. She realized that yes, she did indeed, very much, not only for herself, but also for her lost classmates. At twenty years old, she enrolled in high school in Houston, going on to complete a major in economics at University of Saint Thomas in Texas where she graduated summa cum laude in 2015. In her commencement speech she said,
“To me, this degree is not just a degree. It is a gift to the 60 students that died in a plane crash I was in 10 years ago. It represents the fulfillment of a promise I made—to those students and their parents—that I would reach this important milestone on behalf of those they lost.”
She enrolled as an MBA student and simultaneously began making engagements as a public speaker after that, delivering a 2015 Ted Talk in London entitled, “Girls – Know Thyself”, in which she encouraged young people of all genders to pursue their dreams and be their authentic selves, and assured them there is more life to live whether their scars are on the surface or invisible. “Your scars don’t define you,” she espoused.
It was shortly thereafter that another life changing event occurred for Kechi when her friend from college signed her up for America’s Got Talent.
“It really says a lot about who you surround yourself with honestly, because if she didn’t do that, I never would have done it. It’s that simple. She believed in me in ways that I obviously didn’t. I’m so grateful to her that she did that.”
Kechi said that she had never thought about being an actual artist or singer.
“It wasn’t because of the fact that I was burned, but that did play a role in it. I didn’t really like that when I thought about it. The main thing was that I didn’t think my voice was anything that good that people would care about. But then when I got the burns, I now felt like there was this added thing that, well now I don’t even look the part anymore so I can’t even do that.”
Still, when her friend filled out the application, writing Kechi’s story and attaching one of the private singing videos Kechi had made, there was still one step that remained, to press the “Submit” button.
“I remember I was on campus and I got this text from her and she wrote, “I sent you an email. Literally all you need to do is press submit.” That’s all she wrote.”
“And you did it?” I asked.
“I did! I felt like she’d done all this work.” Kechi laughed. “I pressed it and forgot about it. I definitely was not going to put any kind of hope into that, at all.”
Two months later, one early November Saturday morning, Kechi received a call from a woman prophetically named Destiny. She told Kechi she was a scouting agent for the show and was excited to move forward with the application. Kechi was in such shock, she actually called Destiny again a few hours later to confirm that it was real. All those years of private karaoke and making little videos for family and friends had actually been training her voice for something in her future.
“I had no idea,” she said, “I was just doing it for fun.”
Kechi went on to become a top 10 finalist in America’s Got Talent 2017, tugging at the heartstrings of fans and judges alike by delivering an emotional performance of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and a full-bodied rendition of “A Song for You” by Donny Hathaway. Early in the series she stands alone on the stage, in colorful, fun, everyday outfits. The cameras loom off screen, capturing the effect she has on the audience in high definition. People contort their faces to maintain composure, some let the tears stream down their cheeks. Kechi’s mother, Ijeoma, is one who is shown frequently, fully moved by her daughter’s bravery and sonorous voice.
As she progressed through the show, Kechi’s dresses got fancier, the lighting increasingly sparkly, and the sound fuller thanks to a set of string musicians backing her performances. Yet her song choices remained focused on inspiration and hope. She felt that each round she made it through was a gift.
“Every time I got on that stage, I was just happy to be there. I always thought that moment was my last on that stage so I tried to do my best each time to leave everything on there and have no regrets and then be ready to go home. And then they would move me forward! And I just thought, “I can’t believe I’m still here! This is crazy!” It just ended up being a great experience.”
Kechi was even more shocked when the show invited her back to perform on a special season called “America’s Got Talent: The Champions.” For Kechi’s first performance, she sang a powerful version of “You Are the Reason” by Calum Scott. She wore a gorgeous full-length silver-spangled gown that sparkled as she moved, along with an unadorned gauze bandage wrapped around her right wrist and forearm. The audience waved lights in the background, most cheering when she hit the peak of the song, but some placing their hands on their cheeks with mouths agape in silence. As she climbed the melody upwards, her voice opened into full bloom, like her heart was beaming a brilliance out of her chest, a beacon to shine for everyone who was there and for everyone who was not.
When she was finished, the judges weighed in. Comedian Howie Mandel said, “You’re a champion of life.” Mel B from the Spice Girls said, “You’re a survivor.” Supermodel Heidi Klum said, “It is always a joy seeing you on the stage.” But Simon Cowell, famous as a scathing judge on American Idol and now as the creator of America’s Got Talent and other international talent-based entertainment shows, gave a dramatically different response.
“I’m gonna be honest with you,” he said with a wince, “I didn’t really like it that much.”
The crowd booed and Ijeoma is shown slowly expelling her breath through pursed lips as if in attempt to cushion the blow from afar, but Kechi looked accepting.
“I was already on my way home. In my head, I was already saying, “Thank you for bringing me on this show, it was such an honor to be here.” I had my speech ready. I was ready to pack my bags and just head out. And,”
“And then he says he loved it.”
Simon stood and leaned across the table to slam his hand on the coveted Golden Buzzer, an action each judge can take just one time during the show and which sends the contestant straight to the finals.
Ijeoma’s eyes grew large as saucers. She levitated out of her chair, erupting in joy as large shimmering tabs of golden confetti were released from the ceiling to shower her daughter. Kechi’s realization is shown in slow motion, waves of shock, relief, and joy rippling across her face and body. Simon joined her on stage in a congratulatory hug. Kechi was crying. Ijeoma was crying. The audience was crying.
The show’s host, former NFL player Terry Crews, appeared. “Kechi, you are so emotional right now.”
“Please,” he implored, “talk to us.”
The world was in suspense, waiting.
“Mom,” she eeked out. Then, in a voice choked by exhilaration, “I got the golden buzzer!”
“Goosebumps,” Kechi said to me with emphasis, “Even now, just thinking about it.” She said the moment was not staged and took her by complete surprise.
Through her experience with America’s Got Talent, Kechi gained confidence and ability as a vocalist. “For the longest time, I’ve been recognized as a survivor,” she said in an interview on the show, “but being on America’s Got Talent was the first time I was recognized as a singer.”
She never had professional lessons in her craft until the show, which provided all its contestants with coaches. With these experts she learned the importance of breath work, vocal exercise, and caring for the health of her vocal cords. Now, she has her own practice rituals that include slow warm ups in steamy environments and waking up extra early for morning performances so as to give her vocal cords ample time to become limber. She doesn’t have a coach now but uses videos she finds online to guide her through vocal exercises. She loves these videos because there are so many, and they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to improve their voice.
Kechi also met some of her heroes through the show, which is chock full of celebrities. One of her favorites was Kelly Clarkson, the winner of the very first season of American Idol, a show she had watched in its entirety when it aired the years before her accident.
“Kelly Clarkson was the biggest thing ever!” she burst out. “She’s always been one of my favorite musicians, but more importantly, her music got me through South Africa. Her “Breakaway” album, that was the album that I listened to dedicatedly when I was going through my surgeries and everything was brand new. “Since U Been Gone”, every song on that album I know off the top of my head, because I played it so much. I can’t hear those songs now without thinking of South Africa. That’s how significant an artist she was to me.”
Kechi said she got a chance to tell Kelly in person after this tidbit was passed through the grapevine to her favorite artist.
“I’m so thrilled that I met her. And hugged her! That was so cool. So cool!”
Kechi was impressed by Kelly’s character as well, “She’s just so down to Earth, friendly. She her, she’s real, she’s amazing. That made it even better, that she was that way.”
These are all traits I feel describe Kechi equally well, though she’s much too modest to make such a claim. Instead, she has made it one of her missions to help other’s see that they shine brightest when they are their authentic selves. She feels that one of the greatest gifts America’s Got Talent has given her is a springboard to unimaginable opportunities to make an impact through speaking and singing engagements. The more people hear about her incredible story, the more access she gets to the special groups and issues she wants to help most.
“Number one is definitely burn advocacy,” she said. “and being able to represent burn survivors and enlighten and educate people about the burn community. But more important is being able to support and motivate the people in the community, especially the kids. I’m grateful I have the chance to be a sort of symbol that there is life after burns and that we can still thrive, not just survive. We can do more than just have a life; we can actually have a nice, successful, fun life even after what’s happened to us.”
Kechi knows so deeply what it is like to feel that it is impossible to see a life beyond the hospital, the surgeries, and the physical therapy. The pain alone can become so overwhelming that it consumes a patient’s entire world. She visits burn camps and hospitals and hangs out with the kids. She sings at benefit functions to support their cause. She takes as many opportunities as she can, paid or not, because she is so passionate about helping this community. Of her incredible schedule of appearances, she said, “If it sounds like something I want to do, then we’ll figure out how to get me there, regardless of where it is.”
There are a multitude of issues important to Kechi.
“Another group that is really important to me is anyone going through bullying.”
When Kechi’s family moved to Texas for her reconstructive surgeries, her sister Tara was just around 7 years old. The little Nigerian girl was teased and bullied by her American peers.
“I don’t want that to happen to anyone else. I don’t want anyone to feel like she used to feel.” She said her passion for this subject extends to anyone with disabilities, and anyone who looks, feels, or behaves differently. “I have this passion to help those groups of people.”
Kechi has many other groups for which she advocates, including patients battling with addiction after being given heavy opioid prescriptions as part of their medical treatment. She was given consistent doses of morphine and other IV medications starting from the beginning on her treatment in South Africa, when her injuries were fresh. She said no other drug was as addictive as morphine.
“It was a very crazy thing because I remember that I suffered the terrible side effects of itching. It made my itching that already existed worse, but somehow in the brain the chemical does something to you where you still want it even though it’s giving you this horrible side effect, because of the initial relief you get from that pain. You just can’t help but want to have more of it.”
Kechi said the process of weaning off the drug was challenging but was supported by the nursing staff at the hospital in South Africa, where opioids are strictly controlled. The nurses started weaning her off with placebo saline without even telling her. Once she was able to switch from IV to pill form, she felt she had more control, but she also developed a fear of using pain medication at all and would try to do without whenever she could.
“There was a time when I had no control over my impulses of wanting this medication, so I didn’t want that to ever happen again.”
She knows there are people who have an even harder time refusing the medication and seeks to diminish the stigma associated with becoming addicted. She also sees that medical use of opioids varies across the world. In some countries, these addictive medicines are readily supplied, making recovery from opioids even more difficult.
“Here in America, I noticed that the health care system is very pain averse. The important thing here for the health care staff is that you as a patient are as comfortable as possible, and they will do whatever they have to to get you to that place.”
Kechi says she appreciated that because she knew that no matter what, they wanted her to feel good. But also, when they started out by prescribing her morphine and Vicodin, she was exceedingly cautious because of her prior experience in South Africa. She skipped doses whenever she felt like she could, fueled by what she described as an “irrational-maybe-rational fear” and supported by her family, who helped her regulate her medication. Eventually, she wound up with a whole drawer full of drugs that she never took.
“I realize this is not the story for a lot of people, but I would like it to be, where they have access to this kind of recovery.”
It may sound like Kechi has a lot on her plate, but she is eager to she spend her time on as many issues as she can, including anti-trafficking work and a multitude of other topics close to her heart.
“I’m in a situation where I’m not tied to one particular niche or industry, which I really love because I’m able to explore and satisfy all my passions and sow something good into each of these places. It’s not just one type of thing or one group of people, but all sorts. The thread that runs through all of them is inspiration and groups of people who are trying to make something better somewhere. That’s the main general thing that I’d like to be a part of so I’m really happy with all the opportunities that come my way to do that.”
In case you are worried that Kechi is working too hard, don’t fret; she is having plenty of fun too. She is happy-go-lucky, optimistic, and savoring it all. On turning thirty this year she said, “I’m super excited. I could very easily not have been here. Every year older is a blessing, a gift. I just can’t be upset about that.”
She loves fashion, her closet bursting with finds from Forever 21 and Ross. “Look,” she said chummily, “it’s the worst! I’m not even gonna lie.” She is most often seen wearing cute dresses and skirts with fun prints and plenty of color. One of my favorite outfits is from a photo on her website, a vertical striped jumpsuit of pink, purple, and yellow. She is unafraid to show her legs and arms, which are as covered with scars as her face and chest. She is also unafraid to go out with her never-ending bandages unabashedly exposed. She is beautiful in her confidence and strength of spirit. We can all see the Kechi that she sees.
On her social media she posts videos of herself in hotel rooms and in her home, singing covers she loves for her fans. She posts pictures galore, including casual run-ins with celebrities like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who towers over her even in her stylish heels. With everyone, she celebrates her mother’s birthday and her parent’s anniversary. There is a video of her first time roller skating. She is pretty in a cut-out shoulder mini dress, sassily dancing in place in her skates and laughing self-effacingly before it cuts to a clip of her hugging the wall as she scoots along at a snail’s pace. “Pre-skating swag vs. actual skating,” she captioned it, “I’ll be a pro soon, watch me!” I believe it.
She released her first original single, ‘Don’t You Dare’ in 2018, after two songwriters approached her with an idea. “That was my first venture into actually being a musician and creating music,” she said with excitement. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had. The studio time for recording, when I stepped in there, I thought “I want to be here all the time.” It felt so cool, just so good. I had so many moments of just, “Wow, you’re actually here. Are you actually here making music? How long have you dreamt of this, even before the accident?” So it was full circle, for real.”
She’s finishing an entire album right now, working with studio musicians and a team of songwriters and producers. She’s even writing her own lyrics. When the album drops sometime in 2019 or 2020, you can be sure that it will be full of music built of love and bearing a message of hope.
Kechi has gone through many surgeries in her life, over 120 so far and more to go. Her exterior vessel changes just a little bit each time, but inside she remains herself. She has been living a life most of us can barely imagine and still she reaches so many with a talent that is not merely to survive, but to thrive in a way that is contagious. Her voice, whether she is singing or speaking, seems to broadcast on a universal wavelength that reaches the most vulnerable among us and also those who cannot directly connect to her particular life experiences. She fortifies any and all who hear her, who listen.
She is majestically extraordinary, and at the same time, entirely natural and genuine.
She is a smile. She is a laugh. She is Kechi.
You can listen and watch Kechi HERE
More information about Kechi can be found HERE