The loss of her hands hasn’t slowed Brandy Duhon’s determination to succeed
Brandy Duhon is accustomed to stares. She’s received them for more than half of her life.
Children are uninhibited about it, gazing long and hard and trying to understand. Adults may be more careful, looking if they think Duhon won’t notice, averting their eyes if they think she might. Either way, she takes no offense.
“It’s who I am,” Duhon said. “I guess I’ve accepted that.”
Even at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, where, as a fourth-year student, Duhon, 30, is a familiar face, people can’t help themselves. Erika Fauth, also in her fourth year of vet school, teamed with Duhon last year in performing surgery on a dog in heat, a condition that complicated the procedure.
“All the professors would kind of walk by, like, ‘She’s actually doing this,’” Fauth said. “People you could tell were kind of skeptical beforehand could see her do all the stuff — placing catheters and doing anesthesia. I think that’s when it hit home for most people that she’s going to be just fine when they saw her do surgery.”
She did the operation without using hands. Duhon wasn’t showing off. She has none.
With arms that end a few inches below the elbow — not her only physical limitations, but the most significant — Duhon has not only survived as a veterinary student, but has thrived. She won the Outstanding Student Award for the Class of 2013 in the spring. Her grades are among the best in her class. She performs her tasks mostly without prosthetics, mostly without assistance and entirely without self-pity.
“I don’t want to make it seem that I didn’t have a down day, because some days are down, and some days I get aggravated,” Duhon said. “But those days are very few and far between. I think I’m just very thankful.”
‘I’m going to show him’
Growing up in Duson, Duhon was 13 when, in 1995, she thought she had the flu. Her throat was sore, her neck and back were stiff. Her mother, Melandia Langley, brought her Gatorade to keep her hydrated.
“She noticed that I started to have bruising on my wrist and asked if me and my sister had been wrestling,” Duhon said. “No, I didn’t do that. She also noticed that I had another bruise on my upper thigh. She just couldn’t understand where that was coming from.”
Duhon continued to feel worse, and the unexplained bruises kept appearing, so her mother and stepfather, Bobby Langley, took her to American Legion Hospital in Crowley. On the way, Duhon couldn’t hold her head up, so her mother held it for her. When they arrived at the hospital, she couldn’t pick up her feet to walk, and she was black and blue all over.
“The doctor asked my mom if I was allergic to penicillin,” Duhon said. “She said she didn’t know, and he said either she’s going to die from the penicillin or she’s going to die from this. It was rough.
“I can still remember laying on the table and the smell of my mother’s shirt from her grabbing me to turn me on my side for him to do a spinal tap, and my whole back turning black from where her hands were. That’s something you don’t forget.”
Doctors were perplexed. Her spinal fluid was clear. They sent her to Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, where it took two days to discover that Duhon had meningococcal meningitis, which stayed in her bloodstream instead of her spinal fluid.
The disease cut off blood flow to Duhon’s extremities, leading to gangrene in her hands and one of her feet. It required the amputation of both hands and her right heel. Langley later told Duhon that doctors wanted to amputate the leg, but she convinced them to hold off. She underwent more operations in New Orleans before being released in October.
Along the way, the medical staff began to see glimpses of the determination that would reward Duhon as an adult.
Because meningitis can attack the brain, a psychiatrist was brought in to check Duhon. Dealing with post-operative pain, she was in no mood for it.
“When he came in I said, ‘Can I ask you a question before you start?’” Duhon said. “He said, ‘Sure.’ I asked him, ‘Do pigs sweat?’
“He kind of looked at me. I said, ‘Do they? Do pigs sweat?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘No, they don’t. That’s why they lay in mud. So, I’m fine. You can go.’
“He walked out of the room and said, ‘She’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with her brain.’”
Duhon determined to reject all accommodations to her situation.
“They wanted her to do therapy for the legs and she said, ‘I don’t need therapy,’” Melandia Langley said. “She got up out of the wheelchair and walked. ‘I’m going to be just fine. I do my therapy at home, but I don’t need a wheelchair.’”
The next step was braces, but they chafed her leg. A doctor told her she could not walk barefoot in the grass. Duhon didn’t like being told what she couldn’t do.
“She said, ‘I’m going to show him,’” Langley said. “On one of our appointments … she took her shoes off. She walked into the doctor’s office and said, ‘I guess I am going to walk in the grass again.’”
“There were a bunch of things I was never supposed to do,” Duhon said. “To this day, I don’t wear braces. I constantly walk barefooted. I wear flip-flops.”
This resolve exacts a price. The interruption in blood flow destroyed the cartilage in her left ankle, so bone meets bone. To walk, she must canter her hips, which causes other aches and pains. She is undeterred.
“I just take some Advil and keep on truckin’,” Duhon said.
No Plan B
Duhon graduated from North Vermilion High School in 2000, then enrolled at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to pursue a science degree. She took a job at a local health club, where she met Dr. Renee Poirrier of Acadiana Veterinary Clinic. Duhon initially thought she wanted to pursue anesthesiology or forensics, but was now thinking about being a veterinarian. She mentioned that to Poirrier.
“She never blinked an eye,” Duhon said. “She said, ‘My clinic is right down the street. Why don’t you come on in? We can see what you want to do and go from there.’”
Duhon started by coming in and observing, then was hired as a receptionist, then became a veterinary technician. One of the few concessions to her condition is that she needed help removing cats from kennels. Because her arms are so short, she wasn’t comfortable sticking her face into a kennel to retrieve a frightened cat.
“We just let Brandy figure out how she was going to do things,” Poirrier said. “She does things differently than the rest of us, and she figures out her own way. We said, ‘OK, these are the tasks we want you to do, and you just figure out how you’re going to do them.’ That’s what she did.
“There wasn’t anything that I can think of that she tried to do that she didn’t eventually tackle. She was able to pull up injections, give injections, she monitored surgery. She did everything a regular tech would do. She does it a little bit differently, but does it very efficiently and works well. And super intelligent.”
After getting her degree from ULL, Duhon applied to enroll at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. She was turned down. She applied again the next two years. Same result.
“I remember when she interviewed for a position here in the school, and I can remember faculty saying at that time, ‘Why are we even admitting her because there’s no way she would ever be able to do what a veterinarian needs to do?’” said Dr. Joe Taboada, the school’s associate dean of students. “I think in each year of the curriculum there have been people who taught in that year that had that exact same response. They looked at her and because they couldn’t see how what they did could be done without using hands, they assumed that it couldn’t be done.”
At Poirrier’s suggestion, Duhon had a video made of her doing the work of a veterinary technician and sent it to LSU. She was finally admitted.
If LSU had said no again?
“There was no Plan B,” Duhon said. “I’d have applied until I’d gotten in.”
‘Nothing stopped her’
Fauth first saw Duhon at student orientation. It included a leadership and team-building exercise, building boats out of cardboard boxes and sailing them across a pool.
“She fit right in,” Fauth said. “She was doing everything. Nothing stopped her. I was impressed by that.”
Fauth was not the last at the vet school to be amazed not only by how Duhon overcomes her physical limitations, but her spirit and personality. In her first year, she told everyone to ask her any question they had about her condition. Asked by the administration what accommodations she needed, her primary request was to change some doorknobs from round to levers — not because she couldn’t open them, but it was difficult to do so while carrying a load of books.
“All my classmates were, like, ‘Thank God you’ve got those changed,’” she said. “So, I wasn’t the only one having fits with the doorknobs.
“I could have been left with less than what I have. I have my elbows, and I can drive a car. I can peel crawfish. I can do surgery. I can put in a catheter. I can give vaccinations. There’s not one thing I can’t do.”
“I can’t put my hair in a ponytail, so my friends do,” she said. “I could be so worse.
“I don’t see myself as having a disability. I really don’t. A lot of times I forget. When I see a home video, I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God, I look so weird.’ But it’s because I forget. I don’t realize that a lot of my friends forget it, too. They say, ‘Once we hang around you for a while we forget.’”
Except when Duhon reminds them.
“When we go to a restaurant and we have a big group of people and somebody orders chicken fingers, she will be, like, ‘Why does it always have to be about the fingers?’ and make everybody laugh,” Fauth said. “The waitress is, like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and gets really bashful, but that’s how she is. It’s always a joke. She’s really good-spirited about it. She just likes to have fun.”
Her attitude, Taboada said, will continue to serve her well when she moves into full-time practice. Acadiana Veterinary Clinic clients who met Duhon as a technician continue to ask about her and when she will graduate, Poirrier said.
Duhon credits the support of her family — including father David Duhon and stepmother Chris Duhon — and her longtime boyfriend, Joe Del Diaz, for instilling that attitude and helping make her career dream close to a reality.
The diploma she plans to receive next May will indicate what she has learned. Others testify to what she has taught.
“Whenever I complain about things, I think twice,” Fauth said. “Really, I have nothing to complain about. I should be very grateful for what I have. … She is doing what she wants to do in life, and with her disability, and it does not matter. She’s going to get there.”