PORTLAND, Ore. – Kiera Brinkley doesn’t mind curious children, and mostly brushes off the stares of adults.
Every once in awhile, someone will ask the 16-year-old about what happened to her legs and arms. She’ll explain: doctors had to amputate them or a bacterial infection that raged in her blood would have killed her. She was two at the time.
Sometimes, she’ll get a rude stare or a harsh question and her normally sunny mood shifts.
“I got in a fight with a shark,” she’ll flash back.
She doesn’t let it get her down. She roams the halls of a Portland high school in a wheelchair, chatting with friends or taking in a hug or two. At home, she cares for her two sisters and a little brother, and makes them dinner.
Through it all, Kiera dances, a lot, in the living room with her mother as her audience, in a practice studio at New York’s renowned Juilliard School and on stage with her high school classmates wildly cheering.
When she sways, she’s no longer the girl in the wheelchair, the one with the missing limbs.
“It lets people see the real me,” she says.
Watching her, it makes you wonder how a little girl who lost her arms and legs at an age when most children are still getting used to their bodies grew into a young woman — and dancer — who believes there are no limits, just hurdles.
Kiera (pronounced Key-AY-RAH) was a bubbly, eager to help toddler. Once, she even managed to carry her crying infant sister, Uriah, to her mother in another room. She made everyone smile, says her 36-year-old mother, Elesha Boyd.
One day, Kiera fell severely ill. Boyd left Uriah with her mother, and rushed Kiera to the hospital. As they waited in the emergency room, Kiera had a seizure. Doctors told Boyd that Kiera had an infection of the blood.
As the bacteria spread and tissues died, Kiera slipped into a coma. Surgeons amputated all but a few inches of her legs, her left arm at the elbow and her right arm above the wrist.
Much of that time was a haze. Boyd floated in a netherworld of worry and grief. They depended heavily on their church and faith. She says she never felt alone, sharing the pain she felt as a mother with her church family.
When the day came to leave the hospital, Boyd knew that she could not let disability limit Kiera’s future.
“She doesn’t have any boundaries,” says Boyd, a bank supervisor who also danced and played flute growing up in Portland. “She just has hurdles, like we all have. Life for her wasn’t going to be: ‘You can’t do that.'”
At home, Kiera worked with physical therapists and learned to walk with prosthesis. But she was most comfortable getting around on her thighs. Uriah copied her like little sisters do, scooting around on her behind and never learning to crawl properly.
Before Kiera began kindergarten, Boyd asked staff from Portland Shriners Hospital for Children — where Kiera had received much of her treatment — to visit the school and show a video about the kids who are treated at the hospital.
Boyd hoped that Kiera’s soon-to-be classmates wouldn’t treat her differently than any other kid.
They did — she was greeted like a rock star.
“She was eager to go to school, ready to try anything,” Boyd says.
It soon became clear that the daughter of a woman who filled their home with dance, music, singing and art wanted to dance, limbs or no limbs. When it came time to move to middle school, Kiera won a lottery to attend DaVinci Arts Middle School.
“I was so scared about middle school,” Boyd remembers. But she let go, giving Kiera space.
School counselors advised teacher Kristen Brayson that a sixth grader without arms and legs would be joining her tap dance class. She remembers Kiera bounding from her wheelchair and doing cartwheels around the studio.
This girl didn’t need any special treatment, Brayson recalls thinking.
Boyd and her mother stitched small metal tap plates onto a pair of shorts so Kiera could dance with the same percussive rhythms as her classmates. The music drives her spirit, Brayson says.
“I think that piece of her was going to drive her soul, no matter what,” the teacher says.
Kiera introduced herself to the school at the fall talent show with a hip-hop routine to Lil’ Bow Wow. The crowd cheered, chanting her name.
“She did this magic,” Brayson says.
It stayed with Kiera into high school.
Shriners’ staffers contacted the Dream Factory, a national organization that grants wishes to critically and chronically ill children. The group invited Kiera to live out one of her dreams: A trip with her family to New York City for a Juilliard workshop.
Kiera choreographed her own routines, always imagining each move with the full reach of arm and leg.
At Juilliard, she taught one of her dances to students. At the end of the session, Kiera and her mother sat off to the side, and the young choreographer yelled: one, two, three, go!
She had never seen one of her works performed as she’d seen it in her mind.
“My mom and I just sat and bawled — to see tall, long-armed, long-legged people do my dance,” Kiera says.
Friday, April 2 was a special day. Kiera was going to perform at the school’s annual Diversity Assembly, a morning-long student showcase that included hip-hop break-dancing, Japanese pop songs, hula and Vietnamese ceremonial dance.
Her dance, set to Babyface’s “The Day,” was dedicated to a young cousin who had died in a fire several years earlier.
As she danced, each move was charged with emotion. Tears wet her cheeks. On the final note, as she bent in a graceful bow, students jumped from their seats, applauding and shouting her name.
Afterward, Kiera wheeled through the hallway to her honors English class. Several friends bent down to give her hugs.
“When I dance, I can freely express myself,” she says. “It’s my own therapy.”