Veronica Brooks: An Unarmed Instrument
As an occupational therapist at Princeton Community Hospital, Bluefield College alumna Veronica Brooks works mostly with people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
June 27, 2012
Original article by Mary Beth Jackson for All About Her magazine.
1991 Bluefield College graduate Veronica Brooks, unarmed and dangerously inspirational.
Veronica Brooks works with a patient in the Occupational Therapy Department at Princeton Community Hospital. -- Photo provided by Richard Hypes, Princeton Community Hospital
Veronica Brooks uses her feet as hands to write, drive, work, eat, and put on makeup.
She helps these patients with limited strength and endurance breathe better and manage everyday tasks, since a simple household or personal chore could wear them out for the day. When new patients see just who will be helping them tie their shoes or button their shirt, eyebrows go up -- because, you see, Brooks has no arms.
The youngest of six children, Brooks was born with what she calls a “compact” arm on her right side and a tiny appendage on her left. She started going to Shriner’s Hospital for treatment for scoliosis before she was even two years old. By age 11, she was wearing a Milwaukee brace for spinal curvature, and then nearly a full body cast.
While most would consider this tragic for a child, she counted it as a blessing, considering “most people with congenital scoliosis usually have surgery,” she said. But, what she didn’t like was a prosthetic hook that nurses and doctors tried to get her to use.
“I thought that looked like Captain Hook,” said Brooks, “and he was a bad man.”
Meanwhile, she began figuring out how to use her feet as her hands. She doesn’t remember asking anyone how to use her feet, but only asking for the feet to be removed from her footie pajamas.
From there, she learned to tie her shoes by watching Sesame Street, and her brother, Tim, would take his socks and shoes off to play with her.
Brooks started school in 1975 at a time when there was still concern about where special needs students would go to school and how they would be accommodated under new laws. As she grew, Brooks didn’t want to be defined as “handicapped.” She proved that by carrying her own books to class.
“I was determined I was going to do things my way,” she said. “I couldn’t stand that, ‘Oh, poor thing.’”
With that same determined attitude, she learned to type, use scissors, button, snap, and zip with her feet. Along the way, she discovered she was left-footed in the way most people have a hand preference.
After earning her high school diploma, she enrolled in the Teacher Education Program at Bluefield College. She recalls that during the admissions process she did not check the box on her application indicating she was physically challenged.
“I did that on purpose,” said Brooks about not revealing her disability. “I intentionally left that off because I didn’t want people to have preconceptions. I wanted them to see me for me.”
Dr. Scott Bryan, a professor of exercise science, remembers Brooks’ first days at Bluefield College. She has had a profound impact on his life since she walked into his classroom.
“I was handing out the traditional syllabus, and she took off her shoes and grabbed it with her toes,” said Dr. Bryan. “The whole class was dumbfounded. We attempted not to stare.”
Without arms, Brooks embraced the challenge of the college classroom. She frequently made the Academic Dean’s List and earned a spot in the Alpha Phi Sigma National Honor Society. She was an active student, too, joining the sorority Phi Mu Delta, singing in the college choir, and leading worship and local youth programs through the Baptist Student Union.
“It was a time for me to prove to myself what I was capable of,” said Brooks, who also lived on campus as part of her independence statement. “I had a chance to be very outgoing, and I took advantage of that. I enjoyed my college experience and the fact that Bluefield was a Christian school.”
Brooks said the professors and students were very accommodating and helpful. She credits Dr. Bryan for preparing her the most with his “sink or swim” mentality that she said he literally tested on her one day by pushing her into a pool.
Having to adapt all her life, Brooks realized mid-way through college that occupational therapy was the path she wanted to pursue. By doing so, she could teach others do adapt just like she had. After earning her interdisciplinary studies degree from BC in 1991, she went on to complete her master’s degree in occupational therapy at Temple University in Pennsylvania, where she used public transit and a large shoulder bag for trips from her apartment to campus or to the grocery store.
After college, Brooks returned home in 1995 to work as an occupational therapist at Health South in Princeton, West Virginia. In 2006, she became an occupational therapist for Princeton Community Hospital, where countless patients and co-workers have watched with fascination how she ties people’s shoes and provides needed therapy.
“You get great ideas from things she has to do to manipulate her environment,” said Kimberly Keen, director of occupational therapy at PCH. “We don’t see her physical limitations. She’s just Veronica.”
“Just Veronica” -- like the BC admissions application with the unchecked disability box -- is just how Brooks likes it. In fact, she doesn’t think she has had a hard time or a hard life, but believes instead that God has always had his hand on her.
“I used to be uncomfortable with recognition and would shy away from sharing my story,” said Brooks, “but then the Holy Spirit began to convict me about that. I felt like God was telling me that by saying ‘no’ to opportunities for stories like this that I was interfering with His business. By not being willing, I was being disobedient and robbing myself of His blessings. I realized that whatever He was trying to accomplish, I was His tool. Since I started saying ‘yes,’ opportunities like this have happened more often, and I have seen the results of people being inspired and blessed.”
Brooks also credits the support of her family and church -- Crossroads Church in Bluefield, where she works with the middle school Girls’ Auxiliary and the summer children’s program. Her pastor: none other than Dr. Bryan, who is still inspired by Brooks after all these years. In fact, every time she walks through the church doors with her makeup on and her hair done, he knows she has done it all herself. He is moved to see her raise her compact arm in worship and thanks.
“Children are drawn to her like a pied piper,” said Dr. Bryan, praising her authenticity. “She’s phenomenal with the youth. You can’t appreciate how amazing she is unless you ride in a car with her,” marveling at how she uses one foot to steer the wheel and another to change the radio station in a vehicle with a vanity plate that reads, “Unarmed and Dangerous.”
Original article by Mary Beth Jackson for All About Her magazine.