Super Sarai! - Wheelchair-bound student battles pain to ace GSAT and inspire her peers
She has already done seven surgeries and has endured extreme pain, but 11-year-old Sarai Watson was the one offering words of encouragement to her schoolmates recently as she delivered her valedictorian speech from a wheelchair.
Despite missing school for several days to recuperate from surgeries, and experiencing an anxiety attack which left her in tears on the first day of the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), the recent graduate of the St John the Baptist Preparatory School managed to secure a 95 per cent average to gain placement at her school of choice, Immaculate Conception High.
"It is hard work that brings success, no one gets a sudden rise, not even the sun, it takes time to rise to the peak of success, just keep your efforts going and be positive," she told the graduating class.
It is the same advice Sarai has been using to push herself to succeed. She had her first surgery at two years old to correct the deformity of her legs caused by Blount's disease. Things were great until the summer before grade six when she started experiencing severe pain while walking and her knees started to twist inward. She was eventually diagnosed with a condition called femoral anteversion, and then later, yet another condition which doctors referred to as discoid meniscus.
Sarai has done five surgeries so far to address the problems with her legs, in addition to two other non-related surgeries. Despite the struggles, she remained very active and oftentimes was at the top of her class.
The former gymnast represented her club in Florida and brought home a gold medal, and was also one of 50 students who represented Jamaica at the Caribbean Gymnastics Championship in 2015, where she again won a gold medal.
"Sometimes you would say to Sarai, are you in pain, and she would say no; but it's when the medication gets to her now that she would try and handle the pain," her mother, Marilyn McDonald-Watson, told The Sunday Gleaner, while noting that her daughter eventually had to stop taking part in gymnastics.
But her physical challenges have not deterred her from public speaking, which is her passion. Last year, she copped a gold medal in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) public speaking competition. Sarai has so far won eight individual medals for speech in JCDC competitions.
She was also a member of the Schools' Challenge Quiz team and still attended practices religiously, despite doing a surgery last September.
"She wants to be in school, so she would come to school managing the pain. I would get a call now and then from the office and so I would have to run over with her pain medications," said McDonald-Watson.
Sarai alternates between using her crutches and a wheelchair to get around, but she said her teachers and classmates have also been very helpful in making mobility less stressful by helping to carry her books.
"Like sometimes you don't ask them, they come and then they offer if you would need help, and sometimes you would say yes, but sometimes you would say no, but then they insist that they are going to carry it for you, because they fear that you are not going to be able to go down the stairs with all the stuff on you," she said.
Sarai admits that it bothers her a bit when people stare at her, but she has never allowed this to discourage her.
"It's nice to know that people care, but sometimes it makes you feel a type of way, and sometimes when people talk about your situation and say they can't look at your foot, I feel really bad about it because it is just something that I have to do. I have to make up my mind and say this is my situation and I have to do well," she said.
Studying was a bit more difficult for her because of the pain, but this did not stop her from forming a study group which saw her and some of her classmates meeting up at different locations every Sunday for revision. Her efforts paid off because in addition to being the top GSAT girl at her school, she and another student copped the principal's award.
"I have to be on a lot of pain meds, because when the pain kicks in, you don't want to do anymore, but then you just take the pain medication, cool off for a bit and then go back, and that is basically what happened," she said.
"During class you just get up, raise your hands, go to the teacher, ask if you can go outside to the office so you can get the pain medication, then they call your parents to see if you have permission to take the tablets, and that's what I had to go through," she said.
Both mother and daughter are hoping that the young scholar will not have to start her high-school journey in a wheelchair, but they accept that it is a possibility.
The plan is to have her do physical therapy this summer so that she will not have to do another surgery which is scheduled for next year.
Whether she has to attend on crutches, in a wheelchair or walking firm, Sarai is determined to make the best of her high-school experience.
"I am looking forward to learning new things, trying out clubs and just being there because I really, really wanted to go to that school," said Sarai.