Susan Fonseca: Finding the path to normalcy

“Did you do art when you were younger?”

That’s something that a lot of us dabbled in at a young age; whether it was finger painting, coloring with crayons or making an interpretive abstract with a mix of mediums which included markers and colored pencils. We have all “dabbled in art” at some point in our lives.

Susan Fonseca is no stranger to this. At a young age, she was a talented artist. She enjoyed working with acrylics as well as sketching portraitures of local figures and people she knew. Like many people, once she left high school, she no longer had the time to paint and draw at her leisure.

Fast forward 30 years to March 22, 2011; Susan was waking up like she would on any other morning. Except this time as she got up from her bed, she fell flat on her face to the floor. She had no control of her arms and legs and her body felt like it was on fire. She thought she was having a stroke. Luckily her daughter was home at the time and heard the loud thump.  She immediately called 911. The rest is a blur to Susan, as she was slipping in and out of consciousness.

She was taken to Straub Hospital.  After a series of tests, they diagnosed her with Ossification of the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament (OPLL).  OPLL is calcification of the soft tissues that connect the spinal bones which results in a narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of the cervical spinal cord. About 1 in 100,000 people get this and its most commonly diagnosed in Asians.  The doctor suggested same day surgery to shave off part of her vertebrae,but there was a chance that with the surgery, Susan would never be able to walk again.

The surgery was a relative success, but Susan had no control of her external limbs. While in the hospital, they had to put in a line for her IV fluid. But there was a complication when a blood clot formed and traveled to Susan’s lungs resulting in a pulmonary embolism. “I shouldn’t be alive,” explains Susan. 

Her luck began to turn around after she was admitted to REHAB. On her first day, within moments of meeting her therapists, they got her sitting up in a wheelchair. They pushed her to stay sitting for as long as she could comfortably tolerate, at the time Susan could only handle sitting for 5 minutes. She was in so much pain while she was at REHAB, but she pushed through it. Her goal was to be able to walk again and get back a sense of normalcy to her and her family’s life. Because of her positive attitude and staunch determination, to the surprise of her doctors and family, walk again she did.

Susan was able to regain her independence- not just being able to walk again, but also to cook, clean,  groom herself and to rekindle her love for art. While a patient, she was introduced to REHAB’s Creative Arts Program. At the time, she could barely use her hands and she couldn’t write, but soon found that she could paint. The hours that she sat in the program would fly by. “I truly believe that this art program is awesome because we go through a lot of pain. We were all normal before. You never know what the future holds… art is therapeutic. My creativity was dormant for a long time, but this program helped it to blossom again.”

Today, Susan has a new definition of normal. With REHAB’s help, she is now back dancing with her halau and her goal is to dance in this year’s Ho`ike. She still enjoys being at home, but now comes to REHAB twice a week to paint in the art program. She has even expanded her work to outside the walls of the hospital. Recently she saw a blog posting for a contest to design your own Starbucks cup. The winning cup would be made into a reusable tumbler to be sold online worldwide.

She submitted two designs just for fun. Both emulate her other passion, hula. The first was an ilima and maile lei design; the second was a beautiful lokelani rose. Not just one but BOTH were chosen to be in the top 300 designs of the over 3000 entries that were submitted.

Her husband Mario has been one of her biggest cheerleaders. He takes her to all of the art classes at REHAB and patiently waits for her to finish each day. He explains, “When she first got her surgery, we thought we would need to help her 24/7. REHAB has really helped her, without this program she wouldn’t be able to accomplish half of what she’s accomplished today.”

This program has helped to break down barriers so that Susan can share her talents with the world. For her, this has been nothing short of a life changing experience. She still has some challenges with certain fine motor functions and her balance, but overall she is just grateful and happy to feel “normal” again.

One of Susan’s work is available on REHAB’s new online art sale site. Click here.

You can also follow her on Instagram to see more of her works and to follow her progress @InspiredArtBySusan.


This first painting was made for one of Susan's therapists at REHAB, Angela. This was the first time Susan wrote cursive again since her injury. She could paint even though she still could not write.