Medical practitioners have often said that the healing process begins from the will to be healed. Over the years, it has been observed that a good number of people who choose to fight their way through a deadly disease often triumph to the amazement of the doctors, family, and friends.
In today’s article, we will be taking a look at the inspiring story of Samantha Bennett as narrated by Christina Heiser in her article “What It’s Like to Survive a Deadly Disease”.
When Samantha Bennett was a baby, doctors told her mom she would never be able to walk or write. At just nine months old, Samantha had contracted bacterial meningitis, a rare (and sometimes fatal) disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord. Samantha survived—but her body was covered in scars, her face was damaged, and she had to have half of her right foot and a few of her fingers amputated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are about 4,100 cases of meningitis in the U.S. every year. While anyone can get it, young adults, infants, and those living in highly crowded spaces, like a college dorm, are, particularly at risk. The disease, which is contagious, is spread through the exchange of respiratory secretions during close contact (so from kissing or being coughed on, for example). The bacteria can’t live outside the body for very long, though, so it’s not as easily spread as something like the common cold. That being said, meningitis strikes fast and devastatingly—it can lead to everything from hearing loss to brain damage. And oftentimes, the symptoms, which include high fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting, are mistaken for the flu.
Samantha defied the odds and never let her health issues stemming from meningitis stop her from pursuing her dreams. Now 41 years old, the Columbus, Ohio, resident and married mom of two young boys is a successful painter and passionate activist. Because of her efforts to raise awareness about the disease, she’s receiving an award from the National Meningitis Association (NMA) at the organization’s New York City gala on April 27, 2015.
“One day, my mom noticed that I had a fever that wouldn’t break,” says Samantha. “She went to work for an hour, and when she came back, my grandparents—who were watching me—said I didn’t look good. They took me to the hospital, and within hours, doctors were fighting for my life.”
Over the years, Samantha has had approximately 30 surgeries. In college, she had major work done on her nose and face (at one point, her nostril holes had closed together). More recently, she’s had reconstructive surgery on her legs using a fat-grafting technique where fat tissue was taken from one area of her body via liposuction, processed into liquid, and injected into her legs. Prior to that surgery, Samantha says she could barely walk. “My legs felt like a brick wall,” she says. “They were so tight—it felt like I had concrete blocks on my legs. I couldn’t walk for very long. It was extremely painful, and I couldn’t bend my legs very well.” Now, she says she tries to walk 10,000 steps a day. In June, Samantha will undergo another surgery to remove an eight-inch scar from one of her legs.
From a young age, Samantha showed an interest in painting, and so she began taking art lessons when she was 7 years old. She also studied art in college. “My parents were really excited,” she says. “I couldn’t do sports, so my mom encouraged me [to do art].”
It wasn’t until she experienced a heartbreaking loss, though, that art began to play a bigger role in her life. When she was 30, she gave birth to a son who died two days later, and Samantha used painting as a way to cope with the tragedy. While she was pregnant and on bed rest in the hospital, she noticed that some patients’ doors had butterflies on them. A nurse told her that the butterflies signaled that those patients had a lost a baby.
Samantha drew a lot during this hospital stay, and once she returned home, she started painting portraits of women who had been affected by infant loss and miscarriage, working a butterfly into each painting. “I’ve taught myself how to heal through art,” she says. She then started getting requests for portraits from parents who had lost older and adult children. “I don’t know that I’ve ever handled sadness and grieving very well,” she says. “I always cry [when I paint these portraits]. I don’t even know the families very well, but they’re emotional stories.” Samantha creates about 100 paintings a year (and dog portraits are one of the most popular requests she gets). You can view her artwork at paintersam.com.
The president of the NMA, Lynn Bozof, contacted Samantha seven years ago after reading about her and her butterfly portraits in a local newspaper. Since then, Samantha has continued to stay involved with the organization. On April 16, she spoke in front of the Ohio state Senate to urge lawmakers to pass a bill that would require Ohio students to be immunized against meningitis (the vaccine is available for anyone six weeks old and up). In the past, she’s also met with John Kasick, the governor of Ohio, and spoken at the CDC. She also uses her artwork as a way to raise awareness. “You never know where life is going to take you,” she says. “It’s crazy that these butterfly paintings I had created reached such an audience. I’ve really tried to use my artwork as a platform to encourage women and at the same time to encourage families to vaccinate their kids.”
Through both her artwork and her work as an activist, Samantha has grown to be an amazingly confident woman and has been an inspiration to others. Once, for example, she appeared on the TLC reality TV show NY Ink in 2011 (she got a tattoo of a woman inside a butterfly over scars on her arm). Later, a stranger recognized her and approached her to tell her how much her story meant to her. “One lady came up to me at a festival and said, ‘I just want to tell you that you rock and I love you,’” says Samantha. “Her daughter was burned and scarred from head to toe [in a fire], and she said she saw my story and felt so inspired.”