For her fellow travelers, the half-mile walk to a waterfall in the Panamanian jungle was just a quick, easy hike.
For Ketsia Diaz, it was a chance to prove to herself, and everyone else, that she can do anything.
Diaz, who is pursuing her Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management with a concentration in Healthcare Administration, was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. She was 13 weeks premature. She didn’t take her first steps until 22 months old, the same week her family ordered a wheelchair for her. She had a stroke at age 12. Today, at 24, she’s had a total of 15 surgeries and still contends with conditions related to her cerebral palsy, including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and an unsteady gait.
“My whole life, I’ve always had stats and odds attached to my name,” she said. “I’ve always had people telling me I won’t be able to do things.”
Her mother, Diaz said, has always been her biggest cheerleader, but also understandably protective. Diaz wants to learn to drive. She wants to go to the University of St. Augustine to pursue advanced degrees in physical and occupational therapies. But her mother, and maybe even a small part of herself, is afraid to let go.
That’s part of the reason Diaz came on this trip to Panama. If she could travel more than a thousand miles away from her family, communicate in her sometimes broken Spanish, and navigate a foreign city, then what couldn’t she do?
Along the path to the waterfall, fellow student Joel Chandler stayed by Diaz’s side, as did members of Panama’s indigenous Embera tribe. They held her hand as she crossed streams, stood ready to catch her if she tripped on a tree root. There were a few stumbles along the way, but Diaz kept moving forward, determined to make it to the waterfall on her own two feet.
And when she did, she celebrated. Wading carefully into armpit-deep water and sliding onto a rock just feet from the waterfall’s base, Diaz raised her arms and exclaimed, “I did it!”
“So many people tell me ‘no.’ This was my ‘you can do it’ adult moment,” Diaz said on the van ride back to Panama City. “I can move to St. Augustine. My ambitions are attainable. I’ve learned that I can do 99.99 percent of what other people can do.”