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Contestant on reality show works to inspire others

Kelly Bruno is anything but weak.

She competes regularly in triathlons and marathons.

She is an anesthesiology resident at UNC Hospitals — not to mention she was a contestant on the reality show Survivor: Nicaragua.

And she is disabled — which she has no problem telling the world.

“I think a lot of people have kind of a negative connotation with the word disability,” Bruno said. “I don’t think that the word disabled has to imply this negative thing. It doesn’t mean that I’m anything less. It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you’re seeing that person as capable.”

Bruno spoke to students Wednesday at an event organized by Advocates for Carolina, LimBionics of Durham and UNC’s Department of Accessibility Resources and Service.

UNC senior Katie Savage, president of Advocates for Carolina and an amputee herself, was inspired by Bruno.

“Hearing Kelly (Wednesday) discuss that she even has challenges and that embracing her own disability was a process makes me want to go even further and bring more healing and light toward something which at one time brought me shame,” Savage said.

Brittany Stresing, president and owner of LimBionics of Durham and friend of Bruno’s, said Bruno’s attitude can serve as motivation for all students.

“She has overcome so much and she doesn’t let anything stop her — physically, mentally, emotionally,” she said. “You can be like Kelly, and just move on and conquer it all, or you can just sit back and let it torment you.”

Bruno had her leg amputated below the knee when she was only six months old and has spent most of her time since then proving people wrong, she said.

“I like to prove people wrong,” Bruno said. “I think it’s part of why I work so hard at the things I do. It’s fun to make people rethink their judgments.”

Bruno said participating in sports at the prompting of her father allowed her to accept her disability.

“Getting involved in athletics opened up a whole new world of people which I think helped me gain the confidence to realize that I might be different, but that’s OK,” she said.

While competing on Survivor, Bruno said she saw the physical challenges as a way to spread her message about acceptance and self-confidence.

“I was very conscious of everything I did when I was on that season, to make sure that they could only portray me in the way that I wanted to be seen, which is as a strong person who can take on anything,” she said.

“I want people to look at the things I’ve done and say, ‘I can do that too.’”

Bruno said much work with amputees involves trying to get them active and involved to help build their confidence.

One problem in trying to get fellow amputees to become active is the cost of equipment like prosthetics and the lack of insurance coverage, she said.

Ultimately, Bruno’s message isn’t just for people who are suffering from physical disabilities.

“Now, looking back, it’s easy to realize that everyone has their thing, their struggle,” she said.

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“Mine is a little more obvious than other people’s. Having a carbon fiber leg, people notice that you’re different. But I’ve realized that other people have things they see in themselves as different from the people around them.”

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