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Vancouver Island artist who lost both arms gives back through mouth painting

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SOOKE, B.C. -

For as long as she can recall, Debra Kessler has been inspired by the natural world.

“It’s awesome,” Debra smiles as she looks up at the trees and the sun shines down on her face. “It’s beautiful.”

It’s maybe why her younger self once climbed up on a couch to pose with flowers on the wallpaper, before wishing for the a gift of art supplies to depict nature in her sketchbook.

“I love drawing animals,” Debra smiles. “That’s my big thing.”

Although she grew up to work as an archeologist and a nurse, Debra always found comfort sketching outside.

“It’s calming,” she says.

Until that day on the farm, that couldn’t have been more traumatizing.

“There was so much shock,” Debra says of the farming equipment accident. “I don’t remember it.”

But Debra will never forget that the doctors told her family that she suffered so many internal and external injuries that she likely wouldn’t survive 24 hours.

“The doctor asked me before I went into surgery, what was the one thing I wanted to live for,” Debra recalls, fighting back tears. “And I said, ‘I have kids.’”

The single mom of three, and first-time grandma, ended up spending six weeks in a coma and seven months in hospital, before returning home and leaving both arms behind.

“Where do I go from here?” Debra recalls thinking of facing the reality of living without arms and not being able to do everything she used to. “What do I do know?”

While she struggled to answer those questions for almost a decade, her community of kids, care workers, and Indigenous elders encouraged Debra to find a way to reconnect with the world.

“My life didn’t end. It changed,” Debra says. “And because my life changed, I accept those things and move forward with them.”

Debra persevered, determined to do art differently, and mastered mouth painting. She eventually earned a degree in fine arts, and was accepted into national and international art associations.

“I think I’m better (at painting) than I was before (the accident),” Debra says before smiling. “(And that feels) awesome!”

Which is why Debra so gratefully gives back, volunteering her talents to teach youth in classrooms and painting for donors at Canadian Blood Services clinics.

“If it wouldn’t have been for the blood that people donated,” Debra says, “I wouldn’t be here today.”

Which brings us back to Debra’s daily walk in nature. As the sun shines through the trees, Debra says her focus is moving forward. Instead of mourning what was, her mission is to illuminate what is.

“There’s enough ugly things in the world. I love beauty and I love reflecting beauty,” Debra smiles. “And I want my work to make people happy.”

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