Traveling across Europe to Bulgaria and Hungary, Germany and England, Italy and Ireland, the teens, junior Liz Oakeson and her brother Isaac Reese, quickly learned that they must be cautious of the unknown territories they were venturing into.
Romania surprised them when despite the lack of a common language, they could feel that they were being followed. Eyes followed their bodies and lingered on their faces. Matters worsened when the realization hit that in Romania, human trafficking is a problem.
“I probably would’ve been stolen 30 times if my brother wasn’t there,” said Oakeson.
European women are supposed to be timid, she explained, so when men followed her, she looked them straight in the eye and told them to leave her alone, shocking them. It also helped that her brother Reese stood over her with a trench coat to give the illusion that he was an assassin or hiding a gun, someone with the potential to kill.
“I spent four months in 19 different countries,” said Oakeson.
Although traveling to Europe taught Oakeson a lot about the world and life, it is the fact that she did it while managing a painful affliction that makes her the extraordinary person that she is today.
Oakeson was born with fibular hemiophilia, a gene deformity. This deformity was the cause of a deletion of the fibula in Oakeson’s left leg and all but four bones in her left foot, creating a growth plate knee problem and hip problems.
“I was pretty much the guinea pig for the laser amputator,” said Oakeson. “It only took like 30 minutes.”
The ankle and foot were both amputated from Oakeson’s left leg.
Throughout the past 20 years, Oakeson has had a total of 28 surgeries. Her first was when she was just two hours old and she had completed 11 before she was six years old.
“[Her condition] accompanies a certain amount of pain,” said Kali Skidmore, a former roommate of Oakeson’s. “It makes it hard to walk, climb stairs or stand for long periods of time.”
The pain was described by Oakeson as feeling like the initial sting of stubbing your toe, only it is constant.
Oakeson grew up through much teasing and ridicule being told that she would never be normal. She decided that, in her own words, she could either be handicapped and happy or handicapped and sad – either way, she would still be handicapped.
At age 12, Oakeson was told by her parents that she needed to follow the family tradition in learning a foreign language and figuring out where to go to experience life and the world on her own.
“I grew up with the expectation to go somewhere alone, with barely anything, and go figure it out,” said Oakeson.
Besides spending years learning Czech from the Internet to be prepared for Europe, Oakeson has also managed to push through her pain to enjoy the pleasures of life through dancing, occasional swimming, speech debate and walking almost perfectly without a limp.
“She pushes through the pain and she does everything that other people do,” said Whitney Phister, another former roommate of Oakeson’s. “She goes for her dreams and doesn’t take the little things for granted, like wearing high heels.”
Oakeson recently married Nephi Oakeson and, after being certified in social work at UVU, plans to move to the East Coast.
“I have learned that I can do anything,” said Oakeson. “Figure out what you want and make it something you think is impossible. Make it the biggest, craziest, thing possible and go do it!”