When Jessica Cox was born without arms, doctors warned her shocked parents she would never lead a normal life.
“She’ll never be able to feed herself,” they said. “She’ll never be able to drive a car, brush her teeth or live on her own.”
Yet today, despite her physical limitations, Jessica, now 30, has gone on to achieve more than most people will in their lifetime – including becoming the first woman to fly a plane with her feet.
And Jessica’s dexterous toes are just as useful on land, where she uses them to text her friends, apply make-up and even play the piano.
Speaking from her home in Arizona, US, Jessica, who recently married Patrick Chamberlain, a karate instructor, reveals that while life hasn’t always been easy, she can do everything – and perhaps more – than many able-bodied people.
“Growing up I always felt like I was living in an alternative universe where everything that comes naturally to most people was extremely difficult for me to learn,” she says. “But since embracing my uniqueness, I’ve realised my life may not be ordinary by society standards, but it is extraordinary.”
No one knows why Jessica’s arms didn’t develop – there is nothing beyond Jessica’s shoulders – or why it wasn’t picked up on ultrasound scans during her mother Inez’s pregnancy.
Jessica has an older brother, Jason, 32, and a younger sister, Jackie, 28. Neither of them had any birth defects, nor does anyone else in Jessica’s family, so it is not a genetic disorder. Doctors told Jessica’s shocked parents Inez, 62, and Bill, 71, a musician, that she would always be physically dependent on them.
“For a long time my mum blamed herself for my condition and thought she’d done something wrong during her pregnancy,” she says. “My older brother Jason had been born perfectly normal and my deformity is rare – a one-in-a-million chance of happening according to our doctors. Right away she started wondering, ‘How is my daughter going to eat when she’s older? How will she play with other children? Who is going to marry her?’”
But Jessica soon started to reach the usual childhood milestones in her own way. At five months old she shuffled along on her bottom instead of crawling. And by the time she was 18 months old, she’d built up her core muscles enough to stand up on her own and start walking.
“I developed normally like any other child, I just didn’t have arms to break my falls,” explains Jessica. “My parents were so concerned about it that I constantly travelled with pillows around me just in case.”
Jessica’s parents tried hard to make sure she led a normal life, so they didn’t treat her condition as a disability, but encouraged her to try new things like gymnastics and tap dancing. She excelled at these but was still frustrated by her limitations.
“I knew I was different, but it wasn’t until I was about three years old that I started getting angry about my condition,” she says. “It made me feel very isolated to not be able to do things independently like tie my shoes or brush my hair.
“When I’d see my friends play on slides or watch my brother swing on the monkey bars I was upset because I desperately wanted to play the same games, but my limitations kept me from being able to do those things.”
Jessica’s problems were also compounded by the fact that she struggled to fit in at school initially.
“Kids would look at me funny in class because I was raising my foot instead of my hand and I was drawing with my toes, but eventually it became more normal,” Jessica says. “Sometimes there would be an activity like volleyball or ice-skating that I wasn’t able to participate in, but the other kids would try their best to involve me. They’d hold on to my shirt sleeves rather than my hands so I could play along.”
Incredibly, Jessica says she learned to be confident of who she was at the age of four when she asked her teacher if she could be on the back row at her first dance recital.
“I didn’t want people staring or laughing at me,” she says. “But my instructor said, ‘Jessica, there is no back row, you’re going to be right up front with the other girls.’ That lesson has stuck with me my whole life.”
Jessica continued to push her boundaries, learning how to use her feet to brush her teeth, feed herself at the dinner table, wash her hair and write. But despite her rapid progress, Jessica’s parents wanted the best for her and decided that she would benefit from being fitted with prosthetic arms in 1987 when she was four.
“I remember getting teased for not having arms, but when I finally did get them the name calling became even worse,” recalls Jessica. “The other kids called me Captain Hook. The arms were really heavy. They didn’t allow me to feel things with my senses like hot, cold, smooth or rough, and they were very mechanical looking.”
Even though they made it easier to open doors, carry schoolbooks and participate in class, Jessica hated the prosthetic arms so much she took them off as often as she could at home, preferring to use her feet.
“I really did live a normal life – I just had to train my feet and my toes to do the work of other people’s hands and fingers,” she says. Eventually in eighth grade she ditched the false arms for good.
“They weren’t mine, they were foreign objects on my body that were forced on me for 11 years,” she says. “When I arrived at school without my prosthetics some of the boys made fun of me by putting their arms in their T-shirts to imitate me – but a lot of friends stuck up for me. I felt liberated and I promised myself I would never look back.”
Since then Jessica decided to never let her limitations hold her back. At 14 she earned a black belt in karate, at 15 she became a competitive swimmer racing able-bodied teenagers and at 26 she began surfing.
“That was easy as my balance is spot-on,” she says. In 2005 Jessica started taking flying lessons with a fighter pilot, and over time he allowed her to take control of the plane, leading to her eventually gaining her pilot licence. She is now qualified to fly a light-sport aircraft to altitudes of almost 3,050 metres.
“Some people are scared to fly with me because they don’t understand how I’m able to handle a plane by using only my feet, but they eventually get used to it,” Jessica says.
“Flying is the one place where I feel entirely independent and genuinely proud of myself. I’ve proven that anything is possible if you just believe in yourself.”
Despite Jessica’s incredibly daring achievements, she admits she’d given up on finding someone who would see beyond her disability. But all that changed in May 2010 when she met Patrick, an instructor at her karate school.
“Right from the start Patrick didn’t see me as the girl who could do weird things with her feet, nor did he see me as the sad girl with no arms – he just saw me as Jessica, which is why I fell in love with him,” she says.
“I have no insecurities when I’m with him and I never feel uncomfortable when we’re together. He never judges me and I know he never will.”
Jessica and Patrick got engaged a year after meeting and were married the following year on May 12, 2012.
“I always knew that I was different from other girls, but that never kept me from feeling pretty,” says Jessica. “Some guys I dated in the past were superficial and only saw what was on the outside, but Patrick sees me for me; he thinks I’m beautiful despite not having arms.”
Walking down the aisle, Jessica says she’d never felt more beautiful. “My wedding gown was exactly what I dreamed about since I was a little girl, which made it feel very special for me,” she says. “Patrick and I also had a secret first dance prepared for our guests, which was a great surprise. And when we cut the wedding cake I put my foot in Patrick’s mouth, which gave everyone a good laugh.
“When it came to exchanging rings I put Patrick’s ring on his finger using my toes and he gave me a beautiful white gold bracelet to put around my ankle. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect start to our lives together.”
And now as the couple adjust to living under the same roof, Jessica admits she cannot wait to start a family.
“It’s been an adjustment moving in together as I’ve always been very independent and relied only on myself when it comes to cleaning, cooking and laundry. But I’ll admit it’s nice to finally have a pair of hands around the house for once.
“Thinking back to my childhood and even early adulthood, there were moments when I wondered if I would ever get married and have kids, but finally that day has come.
“We have a lot of memories to make together and within the next year we hope to start a family of our own. I cannot wait to face the challenge of being a new mum.” [GN]