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Kainoa Spenser: ‘Eyes both open and looking’

Kainoa Spenser (Photo by Julia Shumway)

Kainoa Spenser (Photo by Julia Shumway)

The path to the eighth floor of the Executive Tower was a longer, rougher one than Kainoa Spenser expected.

Spenser, now 22, was a 19-year-old college sophomore studying international relations in New Jersey when he first applied for a summer internship working for the governor of his home state. But while finishing classes and moving out of his dorm room, he started to feel sick.

He’d contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a rare infection commonly referred to as “flesh-eating bacteria.” Doctors had to amputate both legs and his fingers, and Spenser’s family feared he wouldn’t survive.

The illness, and the recovery that followed, strengthened Spenser’s resolve to work in public service. And more than two years after he first applied, he finally has that internship with Gov. Doug Ducey.

Of everything you could be doing after the experience you had, why the Governor’s Office?

I think to understand why I’m at the office today, you have to understand the trajectory of my college career. I was a sophomore at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and it was the week of finals that I got sick. Going into that week, I had submitted an application for an internship at the Governor’s Office. So I came home, I had to be wheeled onto the plane in New Jersey, wheeled off in Arizona, and I was declining in health pretty quickly. The last thing I remember is holding my grandmother’s hand for comfort in one of the emergency rooms and then I woke up about three and a half weeks later with the amputation of my legs already done and them saying: “Son, we need to amputate your fingers.” I was in the hospital for about three and a half months, and about two months into my hospital stay Governor Ducey had connected the dots that this kid who is tremendously ill with necrotizing fasciitis, sepsis, strep group A — I had a lot of things going on — had also applied for an internship. I go by my middle name, Kainoa, but my real first name is Christian, so on my original application to the Governor’s Office everything was “Christian.” It took a second to realize that this guy Christian is the same as this guy Kainoa, and when Governor Ducey found that out he wanted to meet with me personally. It was an incredible experience. I was still in a daze and everything, and it was like “Wow, the governor of Arizona’s here! This is a cool day.” He said, “When you’re ready, and you’re all healthy and past recovery, you have a place to come and work for us and help the people of Arizona.”

Do you think in the past two years you’ve changed in a way that you’re getting more out of this internship or approaching things in a different way?

I woke up to a life changed, right? And I had undeniable truths that I had to accept about myself, but I think the really cool thing was being able to accept those truths, see the beauty in the situation and to really learn the lessons that were sitting in front of me. It’s allowed me to live my life with eyes both open and looking. It’s given me a lot more confidence. It’s allowed me to understand a lot of the issues from a different perspective. After about 25 surgeries, 19 blood transfusions, four different hospitals, two states and one major price to pay for my life, I can just sit here and be grateful because I had a community wanting to help and allow me to live my life with no limitations. I learned a lot from this process, and it’s taught me how to give back and why we should.

What does a regular day look like for you working here?

I’m up on the eighth floor, so I come in and check in with my boss Katie (Fischer, Ducey’s director of Legislative Affairs). I’m also working closely with Tom Callahan (deputy director of Boards and Commissions) on doing some of the last background checks for boards and commissions. It’s working closely with him and being able to learn and understand the gears of government and how they work, meeting with different policy advisers and learning what they bring to the table and how they’re there to help the governor.

Something the state House had to come to terms with this year when we got a representative in a wheelchair for the first time was realizing that this building built in the 1960s is not particularly friendly for people who are using wheelchairs. Is that something you’ve run into at the Governor’s Office?

For me, they’ve gone to tremendous lengths in making sure I don’t have to deal with those types of problems. I have an accessible bathroom on the floor that I’m able to use. They have a lot of different options for me, whether I’m on the eighth floor or working down on one of the lower floors that allows me to move around very easily. I’m able to move around the office and have a normal day as an intern without any barriers.

What’s up with the #LiveLikeKainoa hashtag?

That’s something my mom came up with while I was in the coma. She couldn’t see my eyes, obviously, I was sleeping. And all she wanted to do was see my eyes and my smile, and she started that hashtag so she could click on it and my friends back east, our family in Hawaii and our friends and family across the U.S. were all able to post somewhere. It sort of birthed into this whole community around me, and eventually one of my goals is to turn it into my own nonprofit and be able to give to the community of people living with disabilities, both seen and unseen. Each year, we raise money through a golf tournament to give back to our incredible community. They made this all about me and the first year was to raise money for our family, so I turned it on its head and said we’re going to do this for all people with disabilities. I woke up to find my name plastered across everything and I’m the last person who ever wants that. It’s taken a long time to understand that it’s not really to live like me, but it’s to live like this incredible community that’s taught me to give back.

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