Voices Across America

My Patient Story

Carina

State: Connecticut
Congressional District: CT04

Diseases

Rare Disease

Issues and Challenges

Carina has encountered: Mental Health Access, Disability

My Story

My name is Carina Imbrogno and I would like to share my miracle story with others to help inspire them and give them hope it’s one way of me paying it forward. In 2006 Baylor Hospital and Dr. Shelekov saved my life. I want to share my story with all of you. I’m so thankful to all of you.

I was born with a rare genetic disorder that wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was two years old. The doctors discovered I was suffering from scoliosis kyphosis. I could walk, but I had a very prominent rib hump that made sitting in a chair nearly impossible.

My life has been a mixture of blessings and curses depending on which part of it you observe. But it is the severity of the curses that made the blessings so sweet.

Although I was born in 1974 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Italian immigrants, we moved to the US when I was four years old. From as early as I can remember, I wore orthopedic braces and body casts until I was about 11. Not only did they make me look bulky and out of place, but they also invited a lot of ridicule from my able-bodied classmates. I never had friends with whom I could gossip or go to the movies—but honestly, I couldn’t even go to the movies because I couldn’t sit back in the chairs.

Me at nine years old.

Even if anyone wanted to be my friend, my father never would have allowed it. While my mom was kind and supportive, my father was ashamed of me. He tried to hide me away and refused to let me go out and socialize. So, I spent most of my time doodling thin strokes of graphite into my notebooks. It was the only way I could live with the loneliness I felt. I was miserable, especially when the intensity of my illness skyrocketed.

When I was just 10 years old, the doctors discovered that I needed an emergency open-back surgery. They said that the type of kyphoscoliosis I had was deadly. My ribs were collapsing on my lungs and my spine was headed in the same direction, teetering on edge, with the chance of caving at any moment.

They caught in it in time to place a rod in to stop my spine from curving any further. Unfortunately, I spent the next three months in the hospital on the brink of death, recovering from a massive infection from the procedure. One wrong move and I would become comatose. Luckily, I had a great team of doctors behind me, and I physically recovered. But, I don’t think the emotional scars ever fully healed.

When I was 13, we moved to Florida where I still lived as a shut-in. While girls my age were going on dates and learning to drive, I was wallowing at home. Between my rib hump, the unrelenting pain, subsequent migraines, and the cycle of surgeries and doctor’s appointments, my confidence was lower than the bottom of a Florida swamp.

By then I was faced with the big question of, “What are you going to do with your life?” I wasn’t quite sure, but when a family friend who taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City suggested I apply because she’d seen my sketches on her visits, I obliged. It was the perfect opportunity to get away from my dad and start over. I applied. I was accepted. And for the first time in a while, I felt like I was free.

In 1996, I packed my bags and headed for the Big Apple to find my calling. I decided to study textile design, but I soon realized it was not the path for me. I much preferred drawing and painting to fashion. I had a wonderful art teacher, Susan Reitman, who always supported me and my work. She knew some of my past and motivated me to believe in myself. Without her, I may not have made it. I kept in the program, refusing to return to my restrictive home, and I graduated in 2000.

I was fully ready to begin drawing and pursuing what I wanted out of life, but something, rather someone, got in the way. With little idea of how I deserved to be treated after my father’s mental abuse, I married a man shortly after graduation who was abusive and cold to me. His venomous words and fists would cut deep into my soul, but it took me years to leave him because I didn’t think I could do better. In fact, I didn’t think I’d get another chance at finding love. I thought I was unlovable. I began to lose hope in myself and in my passions and found myself returning back to the 10-year-old in the hospital bed, waiting for more bad news.

In 2004, I finally mustered up enough courage to leave, but by then, my health took another nosedive. I had endometriosis, a painful disorder affecting uterine tissue. With another diagnosis came another surgery. Five, to be exact. And much like the other times, these surgeries brought complications. But none of them compared to the complication I faced in late 2004.

I was in surgery to correct my prominent rib hump. We thought it went well but about seven months later, because I had a very rare and aggressive type of kyphoscoliosis, the process caused my spine to collapse at a faster rate. At the velocity it was happening, the doctors told me they couldn’t help. They simply didn’t have the knowledge or tools to. I would have to start using a wheelchair and eventually die from the deterioration. The promise of death loomed over me.

The intense medication was the only thing keeping me alive, and most days I was bedridden and miserable. By 2006, I had a side curve of 115 degrees and a concave curve of 120 degrees. With only state insurance, no one could help me without putting me in deep financial debt. It was scary to know that my life was coming to end all because I couldn’t cover an over $500,000 surgery.

And so, I grabbed a handful of pills. I thought that if I had to wait to die, I’d beat it to the punch. But then…

As soon as they reached my stomach, I realized I’d made a horrible mistake. I called for my sister and begged her to take me to the hospital to have my stomach pumped. As she rushed to me, I slid into oblivion.

A dream came to me in my slumber. In it, a being (who I believed to be God) was surrounded by white light. I asked him, “Am I going to die?” He replied, “No. And remember, I am with you through every hard time.” And then, I woke up.

I didn’t grow up with religion or ever considered myself a Christian before then, but I felt a peace I’d never known.

Call it a miracle, call it fate, call it coincidence—two weeks later, I found the doctor who would later save my life. My brother came across a pamphlet on a plane for a business trip for Dr. Shelekov and his Texas-based team who specialized in correcting spines. When my brother relayed the news, we reached out to him. The kind-hearted doctor offered to perform the surgery pro bono, given my situation. It was going to be a very dangerous and long procedure (12 hours) but my desperation to live overcame most of my fears.

The Alexis Shelekov corrected my collapsed spine by adding two rods and 26 screws to my frame. He was able to minimize the rib hump by cutting nine ribs down, and I even grew five inches from the surgery! The success of my operation was called “a miracle” by Dr. Shelekov and his entire team. For the next few years I lived without all the pain I had once thought was permanent. I was free, for a while, to live a little better than before. But still, I wasn’t throwing myself back into my passions. I was simply coasting in comfort (well, my version at least). I was fortunate enough to have met Dr Alexis Shelekov who saved my spine and my life. I’m forever grateful to Baylor Hospital and Dr Shelekov and his team of doctors who worked so hard to save my spine and my life. I was supposed to be in a wheelchair than dead. Today I’m walking and doing great and doing my art.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with ovarian failure. Even worse, I was going into early menopause at 34! This was a horrifying blow. I had applied for an apartment given to people with disabilities in Stamford, Connecticut, but I was waitlisted. No matter what I conquered, something ugly always found me.

I started suffering from severe depression and anxiety from the news. I had never felt this way before. There were no medications I could tolerate due to my history, and it felt like there was no end in sight. At the time, I was living in my brother’s basement and feeling like a worthless person. My unmedicated depression and anxiety got so bad that I spent the next four years bedridden and suicidal. By October of 2014, I was a wreck. I couldn’t drink. I couldn’t eat. I weighed 92 pounds and looked like death warmed over. Having both physical and mental health problems completely broke me.

In the midst of my difficulties, I kept in touch with my old art professor, Susan. She was one of the few people besides my siblings whom I could rely on. I remember during one of our calls she advised, “If you can’t find a solution in Florida, why not try Mount Sinai Hospital in New York? They’re supposed to be miracle workers.”

Miracle. There was that word again. With nothing to lose and desperate for a solution, I traveled there. On my way there, I begged the higher power, “If you save me again, I promise to make use of my life. I’ll start drawing again.”

There, the doctors at Mt. Sinai found a treatment that I could tolerate and I could feel myself getting better. The negative thoughts withered away. After a few weeks, I was released from the hospital only to u in return a few days later after I came down with a pulmonary embolism. Doctors warned me that if the blood thinners didn’t work, I could die. I was petrified at first, but then I remembered the dream, and I knew that I was going to pull through.

When I walked out of that hospital alive and healed in 2015, I vowed to fulfill the promise I’d made. I was going to finally be an artist. I had been close to death so many times that I decided I needed to stop waiting for the bad to happen. I knew better than most how fragile and short life can be. I needed to stop waiting for perfect health to pursue my dreams.

A friend of mine helped me buy art supplies and I began teaching myself how to draw and paint. Because of my limitations, I started working a lot from photographs. I started doing portraits and animals, a lot of people’s pets. Although I didn’t have much practice, I found myself working with a lot of details with ease. My work became highly realistic, the subjects of my pieces nearly jumping off the page.

With one of the many pet paintings I’ve done since moving into my new apartment.

I started submitting my work to shows and in January 2017, I won third place at the Stamford Art Association Showing. I’ve gone on to win first place in other shows and really taken off as an artist. ­­

With my first-place drawing!

November 2018 my sister took me to see Paula Abdul in concert and I was lucky enough to have been able to meet her backstage and give her a realistic portrait of Paula and her beloved dog Bessie that I drew In graphite. I never thought I would ask she was going to have the opportunity to meet her that night. It’s a night I will never forget as long as I live. My idol Paula Abdul a celebrity has my work hanging on her wall. All these accomplishments has made me believe more in myself in my God given ability and they have made me work ever harder.

This year I did a portrait of Bobby Valentine the famous baseball player and his beloved collie Prince. He is running for mayor of Stamford his hometown also the town I’ve resided in for over 20 years. I got to meet Bobby and he moved his portrait

Once I let art into my life, everything fell into place. After years of waiting, I finally got approved for the apartment in Connecticut. My older sister, who was there for me through so many of my struggles, comes to check on me when needed. Since I was put on the proper medications and began using CBD oil, I’ve never been happier. I endured so much pain and agony on my journey, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. I am resilient.

Since I survived a second embolism in March of 2021 it became clear to me that I needed to begin to write my biography. When the pandemic started I’ve been focusing on improving my art skills and now writing my story. My goal is to inspire and give back for everything life has given me. I feel very blessed to be alive and now working towards the chance to inspire others. I’m becoming an inspirational artist with my story and I believe I’m being guided to do what I’m doing. I think I’m proving to myself and to the rest of the world that anything is possible even miracles happen when you have passion, hope, love and faith.
I also feel very grateful and blessed to have migrated with my family to the USA where my life has been saved so many times.  I am very hopeful for the future and I hope to become a speaker in the future where I can continue sharing my story. 

My Motivation and Inspiration

My name is Carina Imbrogno . I’m a disabled self taught artist and now an inspirational artist. Isabel had many miracles and I feel I’m being guided by God in my life and I’m alive to tell my story and share my art with the world. That is my purpose here on earth and my goal in life. I love to draw and paint. One of my favorite mediums to work with is pastels. I love pastels so much that it had become the medium of my choice. I discovered my passion for finearts six years ago when I almost lost my life. I really have an incredible story to share. I have Elhers Danlos Syndrome that caused me kyphosis scoliosis since birth. I wasn’t diagnosed until 2015. It seems like my disease is no longer progressing which is another miracle. l’m a walking miracle and today I’m thrilled to be creating art. Photography is another passion I discovered as well. I love realism and I use a lot of photography to create my art. I love portraiture of kids, people, nature, animals and wildlife. I can work in any medium but my medium of choice is pastels. I discovered pastels over two years ago and I’ve created over 65 pieces in this time frame. In six years are I’ve created over 120 pieces of art. I have severe learning disabilities and memory problems due to illness and physical disabilities. My spine collapsed in 2006 due to my genetic disorder. I live with some pain. I’ve endured over 10 operations since the age of 10. I have two rods and 26 screws holding my spine. I try to do my art every day as a for of therapy and because I have found my passion. You can read my full story on my website. My purpose is to inspire as many people as I can. My goal now is to share my story with the world as a way for to to pay it forward. I’m also writing my biography.

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