On December 10, 2005, 16-year-old Kechi Okwuchi and 60 of her boarding school classmates were flying home to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, to be with their families for the holidays. After an uneventful flight, 20 minutes before landing, the plane shook with violent turbulence and slammed to the ground, killing all but two of its 109 passengers. Kechi was one of the two who survived.
She awoke, five weeks later, in a South African hospital with third degree burns over 65 percent of her body. She spent seven months there, fighting to survive. Two years after the accident, officials at Shell Hospital, Nigeria, contacted Shriners Hospitals for Children — Galveston about her injuries, knowing the hospital’s international reputation for saving and transforming the lives of children from all over the world who have been severely burned.
Kechi arrived at the Galveston Shriners Hospital in March 2007. Since then, she has had more than 100 surgeries, including releases of burn scar contractures, skin grafts, web space deepening and ear reconstruction.
Fast forward to 2017, and Kechi is getting an emotional standing ovation from the large audience for her powerful performance of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud for a national TV show. Shriners Hospitals for Children helped her get there.
Treatment and care for children goes far beyond surgeries at the Galveston Shriners Hospital. Counseling and therapies to improve movement and foster emotional growth are all part of the hospital’s care to help children gain and build confidence. All of these, such as music therapy, are designed to help children cope and thrive emotionally with surviving such tragedies and living with extreme changes in their appearance. Music therapy was a big part of Kechi’s treatment during her time at Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Regular visits from the hospital’s music therapist gave her inspiration to fight and survive, she says. She eventually performed a concert for her fellow patients, her first time singing for an audience.
“Singing is what helped me survive,” says Kechi. “Music helped me pull through all the emotions of surviving the crash and through all the surgeries and recovery.”
In addition to the personal, specialized care and the quality and dedication of the staff, Shriners Hospitals is unique because it is the only place where children with large, visible burns can meet other kids with the same. This does not happen in other hospitals and it is especially comforting for kids to meet others who are going through similarly unique experiences.
“Kechi is an inspiration to other burn patients and those who provided her care,” says Mary Jaco, RN, MSN, administrator at the Galveston Shriners Hospital. “It’s very difficult work, but it’s worth it, especially when you meet patients like Kechi who not only thrive, but return to the hospital to encourage and inspire other patients.”
In addition to being a talented singer, Kechi graduated in 2015 from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in economics and gave a speech during her commencement ceremony. She is currently in graduate school at the University of St. Thomas pursuing an MBA in economics. After graduation, her dream is to work for the United Nations or Federal Reserve.
"Kechi is especially inspiring because she had so many emotional burdens to shoulder," says Jaco. "Kechi, like so many of our patients, has amazing strength,” she adds. “She goes from being a young lady succeeding in school, to surviving a plane crash and going through the physical and emotional aspects of recovery, as well as exploring why she survived the crash. Her appearance completely changes and she has to learn again to do things she used to do: it’s all too much to imagine. When I think of Kechi, who has moved on from being afraid to go out in public and dealing with the stares because of her scars, to not only go on stage to sing in front of people, but to now take a national stage in front of huge audience, to be judged… it takes amazing internal fortitude. We are all very proud of Kechi.”