Who needs a little motivation in their Monday? A little bit of encouragement to keep your head up and keep trudging forward, no matter what curveballs, long days, long meetings or laundry-list to-do lists come your way?
Meet Jenna Luzzo, a 23-year-old Master’s of Social Work student at the University of Texas-Austin.
I’ve known Jenna since she was 16. I worked for her as a care attendant throughout my undergrad education years at the University of Texas-Austin. She was actually the inspiration for my pursuit of my degree Occupational Therapy.
Jenna is your average 23-year-old, graduation on the horizon, dreaming big dreams of the ‘next steps’ in her life and career—something that doctors told her she never would be able to do 21-years-ago.
Jenna was born with Type II Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disease presenting with muscle weakness, lack of coordination, immobility, scoliosis, progressive degeneration, weakened respiratory system, inability to walk and poor upper extremity function.
Despite the use of a power wheelchair, however, one would never know it.
Jenna is truly an overcomer of the ‘odds’ (at birth, her doctors told her parents—“She won’t live past 2-years-old”).
And that is exactly the attitude Jenna carries throughout life. Tell her she can’t do something—and she will find a way. Not only that. Jenna also believes in living each day to the fullest and finding joy in the ‘little things’—she is a social butterfly and loves spending time with her friends and her boyfriend; studying at coffee shops and drinking Starbucks coffee (one at least daily); and going out on the town (dinner, movies, friends’ parties—you name it).
Here, she shares a little bit about channeling that slight edge in life, and ultimately, her journey in learning what it means to THRIVE.
Q. First things first, tell us a little bit about your story. You were born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy—how has this impacted your life, and more importantly, shaped you as a person?
I was diagnosed at 9 months old, and I got my first wheel chair at age 2. The life I live is one that I consider “normal” I really haven’t known any different. When I was younger it was common for me to be in and out of the hospital for some illness secondary to my disability. I never gave much thought to how different other kids lives were at that time. My parents have always raised me with the mindset that things happen for a reason. My parents refused to treat me any differently from any other child even though I was in a wheel chair, they encouraged me to go outside and play and participate in activities with other children on our street. The biggest quality and attribute that my parents instilled in me was perseverance and determination. I was taught never to say I couldn’t do something because of my disability, rather I was encouraged to adapt and figure out ways to accomplish whatever task I needed to achieve. Now that I’m older I can look back on all the difficult life challenges I have been through, especially when it comes to hospitalizations and surgeries, and realize how perseverance and desire to keep going have saved my life. Not only did the doctors tell my parents I wouldn’t live past the age of 2, there were also numerous hospitalizations where doctors feared I would not recover. Being a very stubborn child I constantly set out to prove doctors wrong as well as others who thought that because of my disability I would not be able to achieve certain life goals. I full heartedly believe that my stubbornness and perseverance has gotten me into UT and into Graduate school although numerous people feared I would be unable to pursue a college education let alone begin a career as a therapist.
Q. Your doctors told your parents when you were born that you would not live past 2-years-old, you are now 23-years-old. That’s defying some odds for sure! What is your philosophy on navigating life’s naysayers or obstacles that come your way?
My parents told me that when they received the news from doctors that I would most likely die by age 2, they were devastated and refused to accept my diagnosis as a death sentence. Instead of giving up, taking me home, and letting time tell my fate they were on a constant search for more answers and research regarding SMA. Though determination to constantly seek the best medical advice and research got me through my early years, as I got older they began to instill the same philosophy in me. They have always encouraged me not to just accept an answer for its face value, but continuously expand and challenge the available data. Though numerous times it would have been easier just to cry and accept the answers the doctors gave me, however if I had done so I know I wouldn’t have experienced the quality of life I have lived. I have always respected doctors, but I have also learned to speak my mind in terms of what is best for my health. I truly believe I can advocate what is truly best for my health because I know myself better than anyone and know what I can accomplish, more so than formally educated professionals.
Q. Can you think of a time or situation when a challenge came in your life-and how you overcame it?
This question really makes me think because the things I have experienced in life seem very normal, but to others I have overcome many major challenges. There are two impactful events in my life that stand out to me. At 8 years old I was hospitalized for 6 weeks and needed a life-threatening surgery in which doctors removed my lung due to chronic pneumonia an infection that compromised and destroyed my lung all together. Without the surgery we were certain I would die, however there was no guarantee that I would recover and regain health and strength after the removal. Doctors were astonished when I woke up the day after surgery and was breathing completely on my own and recovered better than anyone had expected. Since then, I have been at optimal health and can breathe and function better than I was before the surgery. Another major life event that I overcame, happened my Junior year of high school when the house that I grew up in caught fire and completely burned to the ground. My worst fear was being in a fire and not being able to get out because I am in a wheel chair. The fire was essentially my worst nightmare because it occurred at night when I was sleeping. By the grace of God my family got out safely, however we lost our house and all of our possessions. As crazy as it sounds, the fire turned out to be a blessing as my parents were able to buy a completely accessible house and we were able to completely replace all of our belongings with new, and better counterparts. It also helped us realize what is important in life and those material possessions are merely replaceable. In both cases, the support of our church, our faith, our belief in God and that he ultimately has a greater purpose for us in life, along with family and friends’ support had gotten us through these hardships and in truth have gotten me where I am in life.
Q. You are a Master’s in Social Work student—on the brink of graduation. That’s an amazing accomplishment! Why did you choose to pursue this degree and what are your goals post-graduation?
As a junior in high school I took an AP psychology course as an elective and fell in love with the concept. I always knew I wanted to do something that had to do with helping people because I feel that throughout my life others have always helped me in my daily life. Physically there is not much I can give back, but I can give back by providing emotional and mental support for others. Also, in high school I personally went through a period where I wish I had someone who I could relate to and talk to as I was experiencing this new chapter of life. I started realizing that I was very different than many of my friends as I grew older and my friends became more independent and began driving and dating. I felt stuck, extremely alone, and dependent on others in ways that I did not want to feel dependent. My parents encouraged me to find a counselor to talk to however, there was no therapists in Austin who specialized with clients that had disabilities or that could truly relate to how I felt. The more I was searching for answers myself, the more I realized the lack of support and resources out there for individuals with disabilities. At this time, my parents told me of their experience they had when I was diagnosed, in short, doctors gave them my diagnosis and told them to take me home and love me but offered no support or resources to help them through this journey. My parents discovered the Muscular Dystrophy Association and reached out to other parents who were going through similar life experiences. This immediately sparked a desire for me to be that person for others to go to when they are experiencing crisis and are going through major life challenges. When I applied for college, I immediately knew I wanted to become a therapist and offer parents who have children with disabilities or even disabled individuals themselves who have life threatening illnesses therapeutic support and resources that is lacking. My hope and desire is to obtain my license as a clinical social worker and open my own practice and work with individual with disabilities as well as people that have experienced trauma or life altering illnesses.
Q. For you, what does it mean to ‘THRIVE’ in life?
Thriving means you are living life to the fullest every day. You take each day for what it is and set out to enjoy the quality of life that has been granted to you and hope that along the way you can reach others and inspire them to see the meaning of the journey that life is.
Q. On a fun, side note, tell us…
- The best part about Monday: I’m always excited to see what the new week has to offer. It is a start to a new week and new possibilities. I look forward to going back to work and seeing my clients to see how they have been throughout the week. It is the one day you are most refreshed, and is one of my most productive days.
- Your favorite thing to do on a day off from school: Recently it has been being lazy, catching up on TV shows. With Grad school and my internship I’m constantly studying and reading, so it is nice to give myself one day for a mental break.
- Your favorite guilty pleasure (a tv show, dessert, sleeping in late, etc.): Sleeping in late is my most recent guilty pleasure. In Grad school you don’t get much sleep or free time so I always feel guilty wasting my day by not being productive, however this past semester I have come to truly value my sleep and listen to my body when it is telling me I need to rest, rather than push myself to exhaustion.
- Your recommended must-have drink at Starbucks: I’m a total sweets junkie, my absolute favorite drink would have to be caramel Brule Frappuccino, sadly this is only a seasonal drink so I try to take advantage of getting as many as I can throughout that season.