How a Simple PB&J Changed One Girl’s Life

How a Simple PB&J Changed One Girl’s Life

It’s so universal in America, we know it by its nickname. The PB&J.

For Brandi Melissa, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich changed her life. Or, more precisely, it marked a crucial step toward living an independent life as an adult.

Brandi, who is 33 and lives in Baton Rouge, was born with cerebral palsy. Three decades ago, doctors in her hometown warned her mother, Debbie Marie, that her infant daughter wouldn’t live any sort of normal life.

“They told me she’d never be able to say, ‘Mama,’” Debbie recalls. “Doctors thought she’d never communicate. They said if she ever walked it wouldn’t be until she was 10 or 11.”

To be sure, Brandi’s first two years weren’t promising. She mostly lay on a blanket.

“They tried to get me to institutionalize her because of the fact they thought she’d never communicate,” Debbie says. “They made me go see a psychiatrist because I wouldn’t put her in an institution. I flat refused.”

If Brandi started slow, she made up for it with grit. Still, determination couldn’t change her physical conditions. Her mom was reminded of that fact routinely after they moved to St. Martinville.

“We lived in the country on a gravel road,” Debbie says. “Brandi tried to walk on her own, but she’d fall, and she would come home with bloody knees,” Debbie recalls.

Debbie purchased a walker to help her. Little Brandi was not having that.

“She threw it in the ditch,” Debbie recalls with a chuckle. “She was determined to walk by herself.”

The family moved to Baton Rouge when Brandi was in elementary school in the early 1990s, and she became a patient of Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital’s physical medicine clinic. She received intensive occupational, physical and speech therapies to support her continued development.

When she was about 10 years old, her occupational therapist, Suzanne Keagle, recommended that Brandi learn to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a basic life skill that would support her independence.

Some patients mistakenly think of occupational therapy as something that only prepares patients for work, says Suzanne, who now practices home health occupational therapy.

“I tell them, ‘Your job is yourself; you want to be independent,’” Suzanne says.

Brandi Melissa (left) and her first therapist,
Suzanne, reunite in the Assisi Garden at
Our Lady of the Lake.

Debbie didn’t have to be convinced. To her, the therapy made perfect sense. “Brandi can’t do things the way you and I do, but she can get it done her way,” she says. “It might take a little bit longer, but that little girl can do anything.”

And so Brandi learned to make a sandwich with her one, good hand.

At first it was messy, her mom recalls, but Brandi got better at it. And sandwich making was a relief from more grueling therapy, like weight training to boost strength.

“I had so little strength, but Ms. Suzanne just kept telling me I could do it even when I thought I couldn’t,” Brandi says. “I hated it; it was painful. But Ms. Suzanne made me work those muscles.”

PB&J mastery marked an important milestone toward Brandi’s independence. She continued with her therapies at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital through middle and high school.

Today, Brandi is a patient of Our Lady of the Lake internist Lauren Barfield, MD, and she continues to receive physical therapy from Baton Rouge Physical Therapy Lake.

Debbie and Brandi lost touch with Suzanne over the years, but they never forgot the impact she had on Brandi’s life. “She was a Godsend to me, like an angel in a human body,” Debbie says.

On a recent, sunny spring day in the Assisi Garden outside Our Lady of the Lake, Brandi got to reunite with Suzanne.

It’s rewarding to learn how independent Brandi is, Suzanne says. Brandi lives in her own apartment, and regularly testifies at the state Legislature to advocate for people with disabilities.

“If you’d have told me, even 10 years ago, I’d be sitting in front of you saying anything, I’d have said you were crazy because what I’d been through,” Brandi said. “I learned how to do what you take for granted—make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”