Arts & Poetry, Faith, International

Surgery, Survival and Salvation

Alastair McIver chronicles a remarkable journey of restoration and hope through art

November 1st, 1974 was just another day in the lives of the midwives who worked at hospital Paternal in central Buenos Aires, Argentina.

For Angelina Imbrogno, though, it was no ordinary day.

It was a special day, a day when, together with her husband Orlando, they would welcome their fourth daughter, their eighth child, into the world.

She would be called Carina.

Only God can know what the future holds for each of us, why illness, sickness and disability happen, but whatever trials are ahead of us, we cannot deny that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the secret place. That has never changed, and never will.

Carina Imbrogno was one such child, born in the secret place but with a rare  genetic disorder, something which caused her to suffer from scoliosis kyphosis from the age of two.

Carina’s parents had already lost one of their daughters to leukaemia when she was a toddler. Were they to suffer the same fate?

A loving upbringing by her mother saw Carina, despite huge physical obstacles, grow and develop but sadly, she was rejected by her dad. Up to the age of 11, Carina was a victim of her many surgeries, including an open back procedure when she was 10. The resulting orthopaedic braces didn’t endear her to the local bullies.

This feature cannot do justice to the legacy of pain and suffering that Carina has had to endure in the first 40 years of her life but recalling her childhood, she says, “Very early on, the doctors explained that I needed emergency open back surgery because my ribs were collapsing on my lungs, making it difficult to breathe. I had a curve of 89 degrees and another curve of 56 degrees. Without surgery, I would die.  I had a rod put in to stop my spine from curving any further. By the time I was 18 the rod had somehow moved out of place and doctors think it was causing my migraine headaches. So they removed part of the rod and my migraines  went away. However I struggled with my severe and painful rib hump and was always fearful that I would never find anyone because of the way I looked.”

It was every young girl’s nightmare. What of the future for Carina?

In 1996, when she was 22, she won a place at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City to study textile design, a course she was to graduate from four years later. But more heartache was to come.

“Shortly after I graduated I met someone and got married but, sadly he was an alcoholic and I found myself in an abusive relationship.  After I separated, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. It was a very painful illness to endure.”

It was at this time – another very low period in Carina’s life, that God intervened in a dramatic way.   

“I had a dream of God telling me that I would go through many difficulties but I wouldn’t die and He would always be with me.”

God’s promise to Carina in that dream became a lifeline when, in late 2004, following yet another surgery, her spine ‘collapsed.’

“The doctors told me they couldn’t help and that I would end up in a wheelchair and then die. I remained bedridden and highly medicated just to stay alive. By 2006 I had a side curve of 115 degrees and a concave curve of 120 degrees.  I felt hopeless and very scared. No doctor would touch me because my condition was so severe and complex and I only had State insurance which doesn’t cover a $500,000 plus surgery.”

The situation seemed hopeless, but again, God intervened.

“I had a dream of a white light-filled being who put His hand through me and straightened my spine,” she says, without a hint of doubt or fear. “And in that dream, I stood up and walked away. Two weeks after that dream, my oldest sister Ana took me to Texas where this doctor was able to correct my collapsed spine and rib hump. I had two rods and 26 screws holding my spine and had nine ribs cut and reduced in size to minimize the rib hump.  I grew five inches from the surgery.  The late Dr. Shelekov and his entire team who performed the operation called its success ‘a miracle.”

Despite physical improvement, Carina was struggling, and two years later, aged 33, she was diagnosed with ovarian failure and was going into early menopause. Depression and anxiety set in.

“There were no medications I could tolerate due to the many side effects and sensitivities I have. The unmedicated depression and anxiety got so bad that I spent four years feeling hopeless and bed ridden.”

It was at that point that Carina felt like giving up. She tried, unsuccessfully, to take her own life.

But with the help of her sister, she was re-admitted into hospital which, miraculously, treated her as a ‘test case’ and provided her with the ‘unaffordable’ surgery and aftercare she needed, for free.

Then, in 2013, Carina got a letter in the mail saying that, after 8 years on the waiting list, a small apartment for people with disabilities had become available in Stamford, Connecticut. The news made her both happy and apprehensive, not least as by this time, she wasn’t able to drink or eat and weighed only 92 pounds. 

“At this time I was praying and I promised Him if He saved my life once again I would start drawing and painting since art was always something I wanted to do.  A few days after being discharged from Mount Sinai hospital I came down with a pulmonary embolism and once again landed in the hospital.  Doctors warned me if the blood thinners didn’t work I could die. I was petrified but I kept thinking about my dream with God and somehow I knew I was going to be okay.”   

And she was.

Painting and drawing was to become a reality for Carina. Inspired by child-prodigy artist Akiane Kramarik and another artist friend in Scotland, who paid for materials, she began to teach herself how to paint in different mediums, using photographs as her inspiration.

Today Carina is a full time artist, specialising in painting pets. Members of her church, St Mary’s in Greenwich, give her commissions and now she can earn money from her art.

Though she still suffers a lot of pain in her joints, particularly in the damp, winter months, she is up every morning at 4am in preparation to start her day at 5am.  She says that she is the happiest that she has been in 20 years and while she faces more surgery on two, dormant vertebraes sometime in the future, she says that her faith in God will see her through.

“The whole church prays for me, I feel spiritually grounded. The first dream was the start of my conversion, and the second one ‘sealed the deal for me’. I am grateful for all of my miracles. I don’t often share this but I really believe that 5 years ago, God stopped the illness in its tracks. The doctors are completely confused.”

One more miracle saw Carina invited to Capitol Hill at the end of February where she had a platform at the Rare Disease Week to share her story with 800 delegates and Congressmen. And later this year, she starts to record an audio book about her life.

Carina is a walking miracle and a living testament to the God who has brought her through much darkness, into His light.

‘Surgery Survival and Salvation’ was first published in Woman Alive magazine, April 2020

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