OA: Mesa thespian overcomes rare disease, lands first lead

Janet Kelleher, as the lead character Rachel in “Reckless,” gets a little help out a window from Jesse Lee Keeter, playing the role of Rachel’s not-so-agreeable husband, Tom. “Reckless” is on stage Wednesday through Sunday, Nov. 19-22, at Mesa State College.



Janet Kelleher, as the lead character Rachel in “Reckless,” gets a little help out a window from Jesse Lee Keeter, playing the role of Rachel’s not-so-agreeable husband, Tom. “Reckless” is on stage Wednesday through Sunday, Nov. 19-22, at Mesa State College.



Janet Kelleher,  20, got called back for every female role in Mesa State College’s production of “Reckless” and walked away with the lead.

The key word here is “walked,” because up until a year and half ago, Kelleher couldn’t walk at all.

A genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome affecting collagen synthesis, left her completely disabled and using a wheelchair.

The now junior acting and directing major from Grand Junction was in middle school when symptoms of the syndrome began.

By her sophomore year of high school she was fainting and her joints were spontaneously dislocating.
She had to drop out of school.

Physicians told her she’d never walk again.

But a month before her 19th birthday, after exhaustive physical therapy, Kelleher said she realized that walking again without assistance was within her reach.

Despite having many physicians she respects, “a lot of my experience with doctors is them telling me why I shouldn’t be doing the things that I’m doing,” she said.

Kelleher got her GED, and when she started as a freshman at Mesa State she walked with a crutch.

“I never really thought of myself as a handicapped person, but it was integral to how people saw me,” she said.

The day she started walking without the crutch, or any assistance, in August 2007 was the most “terrifying” day of her life.

It wasn’t because it was painful, but because so much of her identity — how she looked, who her friends were and what she did — was attached to her wheelchair and crutch, she said.

She’s so over it now.

In “Reckless,” her character Rachel is in every single scene of the play. It’s her first major lead at Mesa State.

“Theater as a whole is what I love,” she said.

Kelleher said she wouldn’t feel fulfilled if she was doing anything other than acting.

She doesn’t take her mobility for granted, either. Kelleher rides her bike to school and snowboards in the winter.

Things that may be burdens to some people — work or school — are things she thought she’d never be able to do.

Kelleher said she maintains a healthy lifestyle and is very in tune to her body in case she starts feeling ill. Because Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is a genetic disorder, she isn’t completely free of it.

She’s also grateful for her friends and family.

“I really value the people that I have in my life at this point,” she said. “I really feel like I’m surrounded by amazing people.”


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