Even as a little girl, Vanessa Alfaro wanted to become a dentist.
So when she suffered a workplace injury that caused her to lose all feeling in her dominant hand, she also lost out on her dream.
“I was in a very dark place,” says Alfaro. “The circumstances of how it happened and what it meant for my future, it was just a hard time emotionally and physically.”
It also triggered something inside her: a desire to succeed in something new. Knowing the demands of lab work in her biochemistry program might be too great while rehabbing the injury, she switched majors and chartered a new path.
Today she graduates on the Dean’s list with an Honours Bachelor of Science majoring in health studies, and minors in women and gender studies and international development studies.
“I realized that those were the cards I was dealt, but I still wanted something positive in my life. I’m so grateful that I pushed through and didn’t quit.”
The injury that changed Alfaro’s life took place on October 8, 2017.
It was near the end of her shift working as a server when she slipped and her right hand went into a server bin full of glass. A severe pain immediately shot through her arm and blood was dripping from a small, deep cut. After going to the ER, the doctor stitched up the cut and sent Alfaro home despite her reporting the pain and complete loss of mobility in her hand.
Following days of constant pain and not regaining feeling in her hand, Alfaro went to a local walk-in clinic. She was again told it was nothing to worry about. After a few weeks her hand started to disfigure, the pain was constant and still no feeling, so she decided to visit her family doctor. She was referred to a specialist and after waiting another month, was told at the appointment to prepare for surgery the following week. Her ulnar nerve, which plays a crucial role in fine motor control in the hand, was severed and it required reconstructive surgery.
Alfaro was in denial at first, thinking she could regain full control of her hand through physiotherapy.
“The surgeon who operated on my hand was very practical and straight-up, which I appreciated given what I had experienced, but she told me in a very motherly way ‘honey, I need you to think of other careers, because your injury is extreme and your hand won’t be the same again.’”
There were also more practical concerns. In addition to requiring 15 hours of physio per week, Alfaro also had to navigate re-learning daily activities like eating, washing and writing with her non-dominant hand.
Despite the additional challenges and constant pain from the injury, Alfaro decided to stay in school. She credits help and motivational support from her aunt, as well as support and accommodations from AccessAbility Services and the U of T Scarborough writing centre for getting her through.
She also praises the guidance she received from Associate Professor Nancy Johnston, who taught her gender and disability studies course.
“She made me feel so comfortable, especially during my last two years of school. Her support really helped me improve as a student because she showed me it was OK to reach out to my professors, and that really helped me gain the confidence I needed.”
While Alfaro says she’s in a much better place now than she was nearly four years ago, she is still recovering physically and emotionally from the injury.
“I always wonder if it was detected earlier, would my hand be better,” says Alfaro, who still receives nerve-block injections every three months to help with the pain.
“That really affects me. I think that will affect me for the rest of my life knowing my voice wasn’t heard when I was speaking up.”
Alfaro is currently working in a vaccination centre but is now considering law school in the future. She’s become interested in personal injury law and hopes maybe she can one day use her experience to help advocate for others in a similar situation.
Her advice to students – don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and listen to what others have to say.
“Every single person’s voice matters, regardless of where they are from or what they do, and what they say should be taken seriously.”