‘I Was Lucky to be Alive’

141208_KozaiSummer Kozai slides her arm into a plastic cuff to brush her hair. She uses another bracelet-like cuff to brush her teeth. If she chooses easy-to-don clothes, her morning is starting out strong.

Kozai, a 2004 graduate of Pacific University, is still adjusting to her new pace of completing daily tasks — but she’s thankful she’s able to do them at all by simplifying daily activities.

In 2009, while traveling abroad for work, Kozai contracted bacterial meningitis. To save her life, doctors had to amputate all four of her limbs.

But Kozai considers herself blessed: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about 500 of the 4,100 U.S. cases of bacterial meningitis found each year between 2003 and 2007 were fatal.

Kozai was born and raised on Oahu. She studied finance and accounting at Pacific University, where she also was involved with the Nā Haumāna O Hawai‘i, or Hawai‘i Club.

She went on to earn a dual master’s in business administration and master’s of science in accounting from Northeastern University in Boston. She returned to Hawai‘i to work as an auditor with Grant Thornton in Honolulu, and then took a position as an auditor with the Defense Contract Audit Agency.

In 2009, she was on a temporary duty assignment in the southwestern Pacific Islands when she began to fall ill.

Flu-like symptoms came first, rapidly progressing into septic shock, or dangerously low blood pressure brought on by infection. She remembers not being able to breath.

A month later she woke up from a medically induced coma and realized her world had changed. The words bacterial meningitis still echo in her ears.

“My parents told me what had happened. I was all bandaged up, and I couldn’t speak because a breathing tube had been put in,” Kozai said. “Even though I knew I’d have multiple amputations, I also knew I was lucky to be alive and even luckier to have my vision, hearing, and no brain damage.”

Kozai spent almost a year in the hospital in Hawai‘i, where she took more than 20 trips to the operating room.

“I became a diva and started refusing to go unless my favorite anesthesiologist was there,” Kozai said.

Then, she transferred to Portland, where she was in and out of hospitals for about three years, ultimately ending up at Oregon Health Sciences University, where she began to really see progress.

After years of skins grafts and surgeries, she began physical therapy.

Angela Vongsouvanh is Kozai’s former physical therapist and now a good friend. Vongsouvanh said she’s seen Kozai through good and bad days, but the biggest change is the way Kozai passionately advocates for herself.

“I remember her talking to another physical therapist one day, and I overheard her say, ‘I don’t give up; it just isn’t me,’” Vongsouvanh said. “I think about that physical therapist’s reaction a lot, and the example [Kozai] sets for all of us.”

Kozai explains: “It was harder for the people who loved me to have to watch me suffer than it was for me to deal with the pain, so what choice did I have other than to do my best to show them I was strong enough to move on?

“The physical and occupational therapy was hard, but fun, and I have good therapists who challenged me to be brave so that I could find my independence.”

Kozai is back at work, mostly from her home in Oahu, and is becoming more comfortable learning how to make activities fit her daily needs. Basic tasks like cutting an apple or folding clothes takes longer, but she gains physical and emotional support from her service dog, Trooper, and she enjoys friends and family.

She loves discovering new restaurants in downtown Portland when she visits, and reading or watching her favorite television shows: Doctor Who and The Vampire Diaries.

“It’s harder to find reasons to be depressed about my life now than it is to find reasons to smile,” Kozai said. “The physical aspects of my ordeal will always be obvious, but the beauty of the human body is that it doesn’t remember the pain. Only the mind does, and my mind is stuffed with memories of laughter and fun.”

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