Stephenie Rodriguez in a new kind of dance. | HerCanberra

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Stephenie Rodriguez in a new kind of dance.

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Stephenie Rodriguez is used to the media spotlight.

As an American-born award-winning tech-entrepreneur and digital strategist who has invented a ground-breaking personal safety device, Stephenie has spent years criss-crossing the globe launching various start-ups and working the social scene while also raising a son from a home base in Canberra.

But a week ago, her story took on a far more personal angle when she was featured on the front cover of The Good Weekend Magazine for her most impressive achievement to date—surviving cerebral malaria.

 

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The magazine uses an arresting image of Stephenie sitting on the photography studio floor, her prosthetic feet resting on the ground in front of her. She has become Australia’s first female bilateral above-ankle osseointegrated amputee.

The article provides an in-depth account of Stephenie’s battle to survive the ravages of a malarial mosquito bite in 2019 when she was in Nigeria attending a Hive Global Leaders Summit to speak about Collaboration—the 17th of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

She was there to present WanderSafe, a smartphone app that pairs with a small personal safety “beacon” she invented. It’s a high-tech keyring which, when pressed, can be used to deter an attack, emitting strong strobe lighting and a powerfully loud alarm while simultaneously sharing the user’s GPS location with specific contacts with an alert them that something is wrong and the user’s specific location.

 

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Randomly, Stephenie had won a raffle at her local, Fenway Public House in Woden, just weeks earlier, and backed up her trip to Africa with a prize of flying to Boston to see a baseball game at Fenway Park with her close friend Liz Beath.

But her health started to deteriorate as the whirlwind visit finished and as she prepared to fly home she slipped into a coma with the most severe form of neurological complications of malaria. Liz summoned her family to Boston, Massachusetts, as Stephenie wasn’t expected to survive.

But survive she did, albeit with terrible damage to her hands and feet as a result of the septic shock she suffered during treatment.

She relocated from Canberra to Sydney to continue her long and arduous recovery, undergoing more than 36 operations and 368 nights of hospital. Six months ago, Stephenie made the decision to say goodbye to the partially amputated feet that refused to heal.

 

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Last weekend, as her cover story went out across the Fairfax press, Stephenie returned to Canberra, triumphantly wearing a pair of nude kitten heels and a little black dress to take Liz out to dinner at the newly-opened Brunello restaurant in Civic.

Stephenie is proud of her new feet, her bionic ankles, her pilates-strong body, and the fact she can walk.

“One of the things I discussed with photographer Tim Bauer (who has shot women such as Margaret Thatcher and Audrey Hepburn) was that I didn’t want my scars airbrushed for the photos. I already embody science fiction, however, I want to be authentic.”

“Yes, it was a little confronting to do the story and to have it all out there. Everywhere. The response has been amazing and I have received messages of support from around the world.”

Stephenie is determined that the second chance she has at life was granted so that she might deliver on her stated mission – to make a difference through WanderSafe and to impact a billion lives by 2025 and make the world safer for women and vulnerable people in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“I want girls in Australia, Africa, and around the world to be able to walk to school and feel empowered and not get raped. I want survivors of domestic violence to feel more in control of their personal safety.  I want members of the LGBTQ community to feel safe to live fearlessly. I want elderly people to feel confident to leave their homes and live independently.”

She uses the quote by American writer Jack London to explain her present unstoppable mindset: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.”

She feels restored. And although augmented, whole.

“Each day I screw on my prosthetic feet and dress myself, all the way up to lipstick and a fresh attitude. Latin women don’t leave the house without wearing lipstick,” she says in reference to her Puerto Rican heritage and love of a killer red lip.

 

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“My feet are now perfect, I will never get a blister. I am bionic. I have a sense of value and self-worth and I am full of gratitude that I have limbs that work.”

And those limbs are increasingly adept at walking in the designer high heels that Stephenie so lovingly collected across her high-flying career.

While her ex-husband gave most of her covetable collection away after her hospitalisation, “presumably under the assumption I would not be wearing them again”, Stephenie is re-stocking her wardrobe—the latest Louboutins arriving last week as an early Christmas present from an anonymous admirer.

In 2022, she is also publishing a memoir, “Thank You, Mrs Carter”, titled in gratitude to Beyonce Knowles-Carter.

Her autobiography’s title evokes curiosity. She explains it is a reference to the role Beyonce played in encouraging her to move in those first terrifying hours, days, and weeks following her two-week coma. Unable to lift even a finger at first, Stephenie’s son would put her laptop in front of her, put her headphones on and play Bey’s documentary of her performance at Coachella titled “Homecoming” on Netflix.

While Stephenie was still paralysed, she would sing and dance in her head and will her limbs to move with Queen Bey. She vividly recalls the day when a nurse entered her room and Stephenie was able to wave her arm over her head and say hello after waking fully paralysed just weeks before.

She actively credits the inspiration derived from Beyonce’s documented journey from a cesarean birth of twins and 180 days to prepare for the biggest show of her life.

In March, next year Stephenie will have her own personal “homecoming” returning to the African continent where she is scheduled to give a TEDx talk on resilience, overcoming trauma and her quest to make the world safer.

With more than 400 views of the documentary to keep her motivated since hospitalisation in 2019 and true to Beyonce form, Stephenie is now ready and able to dance.

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