By Tony Phillips
Marina Nakhla is modest about her achievements. When asked about what she has accomplished as a young woman with limb difference, she says, “It’s really all due to my parents and my sister. They’ve always been supportive of everything I’ve wanted to do.”
Nakhla was born missing both tibias. Knowing that she would never walk on her own legs, her parents faced the choice of limiting Nakhla to a wheelchair for life or having both legs amputated. The Nakhlas were already experienced in making difficult choices, having chosen to immigrate to the United States from their native Egypt before Nakhla’s birth. “They wanted their children to have more options and opportunities in life,” says Nakhla, “and they greatly emphasized education. They believed education was the key to success.”
To provide the best possible options for a daughter born without functional legs and with only three fingers on her right hand and four on her left, her parents elected to have Nakhla’s legs amputated above the knee when she was just 14 months old.
“My parents’ choice gave me a chance to walk,” Nakhla says. “I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for them, but I’m very grateful they gave me that chance.”
Now 23, Nakhla is completing a master’s degree in clinical psychology at California State University, Northridge, following a lifelong interest in the subject. “As a child,” she says, “I was always intrigued by why some are happy and others aren’t, regardless of their circumstances. Whether they’re doing well or not, whether they have challenges or not, there are some people who can accept and overcome their barriers and others who seem defeated by them. I remember wondering why that is from an early age.”
Nakhla’s curiosity may have something to do with her own perseverance despite personal obstacles, some of them obvious, others harder to see. As a woman in a scientific field, she has confronted the institutional prejudices of academia, and also deals with malignant attitudes toward immigrants and people of color that still exist. As a woman of Coptic Egyptian ancestry, she is a minority within a minority, and faces cultural attitudes toward disability and difference. She deals with all that in addition to the limitations that come with walking on two prosthetic legs. Nakhla is a textbook case of intersectional struggle and prejudice, and a living testimony to the power of will.
Dealing with challenges has been part of her daily life for as long as she can remember. In a recent blog post, Nakhla recalls, “When I was in preschool, I was placed in a special education class. After an entire year, my teachers finally realized their mistake…[that] my physical disability has nothing to do with my intellectual abilities.”
The unfounded assumption that physical limitation means intellectual inferiority has followed Nakhla through every level of academia. There is also the tendency for people to dismiss her accomplishments as mere consolation for her disadvantage. “I frequently hear comments from peers who assume I get extra time for tests or other special privileges,” she says. “There are people who think my achievement isn’t legitimate, that it has to do with accommodation for my disability or some progressive policy that benefits me.”
Nakhla takes it all in stride. “Unfortunately,” she says, “that’s just the world we live in.”
Nakhla is undeterred by these assumptions and comments, and her academic performance has earned her membership in the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), a training program funded by the National Institutes of Health that seeks to increase the number of underrepresented students who complete doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences. RISE is composed of scholars who are selected according to rigorous academic standards. Nakhla’s inclusion in the program is one of numerous distinctions she has earned in academia.
As Nakhla prepares to enter a doctoral program in clinical neuropsychology, focusing on dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment, she knows she will encounter unspoken prejudices and attitudes toward people with physical differences. The confrontation inspires her.
“I know there are preconceived ideas out there about what I can do—as a woman, as the child of immigrants, as a person with limb difference,” she says. “I don’t let misconceptions limit my goals. To me, the reward is in proving those ideas wrong.”
Still, despite her boundless ambition and constant optimism, Nakhla concedes that living with her physical limitations makes everything a bit harder. She has learned to manage her time, allowing extra time to get to classes and appointments. She has learned to economize her energy, knowing that it requires effort to get ready to leave the house and even more effort to get around in a world made for the able-bodied. She has learned to juggle multiple demands, prosthetic fitting appointments, physical therapy, and various medical regimens around a taxing school schedule.
She has also learned to value her mobility and appreciate the choice her parents made on her behalf more than two decades ago.
“When I was 11 years old,” she says, “I had a surgery to remove a bone growth from my femur. It was the summer before sixth grade, and I was confined to a wheelchair for two months. It was the only time in my life I’ve really known what it’s like to be immobile, and I knew all my friends were out playing while I was stuck in a chair. It made a real impact, and it taught me to appreciate my prosthetic legs. I try to never take my mobility for granted.”
Given everything she has done in her young life, and given everything she has overcome, Nakhla could be expected to take pride in her own resilience and tenacity. But she eschews praise and cites her many support systems as the source of her motivation and success.
“It certainly starts with my parents and my sister,” she says, “and understanding all that they went through so I could have the opportunities I do. And beyond them, there’s always been such a strong support system behind me—the staff of Shriners Hospital who have encouraged and empowered me my whole life, my prosthetists, my therapists, my teachers, and professors. A strong support system is so important.”
The importance of a support network is central to Nakhla’s message to other people adapting to limb difference. It also plays a part in her chosen academic field. She looks forward to researching Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairments and to conducting research studies including subjects with physical disabilities.
“Research into cognitive impairment tends to exclude people with disabilities on the basis that findings for that group are not generalizable. I want to examine how to support and benefit people with cognitive impairments compounded by limb difference and other disability. There are very few studies available to guide prosthetists and others working with that population. I’m very interested in addressing the research gap; I guess because I know what it feels like to face adversity and be excluded.”
For now, Nakhla’s advice to anyone facing physical limitations or any other challenge is, “Lean on your support network. Your adversities can get tough to handle, but don’t give up. Take advantage of services. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take a break if you need it.”
Her advice extends to anyone dealing with a system that throws up obstacles at every turn.
“It’s very hard to admit ‘I don’t know’ and to ask for help. Self-advocacy is a difficult thing to master. But you just have to push through the ‘no’ answers. It’s your right to access help. I know that when I was a child my parents had to keep fighting for me through insurance issues, school access issues, and so much more. You just have to keep fighting. You are capable.”