After a workplace accident, University of Toronto grad Vanessa Alfaro charted a new path to convocation

Vanessa Alfaro, who graduates this week from U of T Scarborough, is considering a career in law after a hand injury forced her to rethink her plans of becoming a dentist (photo by Don Campbell)

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.”

The accident 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 charted a new path.

“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.”

Today, she graduates from the University of Toronto Scarborough on the dean’s list. She earned an honours bachelor of science degree with a major in health studies and minors in women and gender studies, and international development studies.

The injury that changed Alfaro’s life took place in the fall of 2017. She was working as a server when, near the end of her shift, she slipped and her right hand plunged into a bin of glassware. A severe pain shot through her arm. She went to the emergency room, where a doctor stitched up the cut and sent Alfaro home – despite her noting a loss of mobility in her hand.

Days went by, but Alfaro’s condition didn’t improve. She went to a local walk-in clinic, but was again told it was nothing to worry about. A few weeks later, she visited her family doctor and was referred to a specialist. Another month went by before she was told to prepare for surgery the following week. The diagnosis: her ulnar nerve, which plays a crucial role in fine motor control, was severed and 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 physiotherapy per week, Alfaro 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 Johnson, 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 and is considering law school. 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.”

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