Moving forward: Kechi Okwuchi has already defied the odds to survive a plane crash and make it to the finals of America’s Got Talent, wowing the nation with her voice. But off stage she’s still been battling pain in her neck, arms and face. Now reconstructive surgeons are helping her move ahead. Pictured: Kechi after her first set of surgeries to make her cheeks symmetrical, allow her to straighten her arms, turn her neck, and close her left eye
A gifted singer and burns victim who captured the nation’s hearts on America’s Got Talent has undergone life-changing surgery.
Kechi Okwuchi, 29, from Nigeria, was just 16 when a plane flying her and 60 schoolmates from the capital Abuja to the southern city of Port Harcourt crashed at its destination.
Of the 109 passengers on Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145, seven were recovered from the wreckage but only two survived. Kechi was one of them, suffering third-degree burns on 65 percent of her body.
She underwent more than 100 surgeries to restore her speech, movement, sight, and independence.
Music got her through – and pushed her into the limelight last year, when she stunned the audience and judges of America’s Got Talent with a rendition of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud.
But behind the camera, Kechi still endured excruciating pain – both physical and psychological. One eye has never closed completely since the crash, one ear doesn’t have a lobe, she can’t straighten her arms fully. Her neck is the thing that affects her the most: she cannot fully turn her head to the right, and the tightness restricts how she can react, perform and move day-to-day.
Now, DailyMail.com can exclusively reveal that a year after Kechi made it to the final of AGT 2017, the TV show Extra has connected her with world-class surgeons to finally help her through the lingering injuries.
‘I’m just so grateful,’ Kechi says on the show, adding: ‘Amazing things have happened in my life.’
KECHI’S JOURNEY: HOW SHE FOUGHT BACK FROM THE HOSPITAL BED TO THE GLOBAL STAGE
The last thing Kechi can remember from the crash on 22 October, 2005, is a scratchy metal sound as they headed towards the ground.
Then she blacked out.
Kechi was airlifted to Johannesburg, South Africa, where doctors stabilized her.
Two years later, her case was accepted by doctors at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas.
In total, she underwent nearly 100 surgeries.
She’d been singing since she was a little girl, but music took on new meaning during her recovery, as her mother would play her favorite songs while she was in a coma.
Kechi was just 16 when a plane flying her and 60 schoolmates from the capital Abuja to the southern city of Port Harcourt crashed at its destination. She underwent more than 100 surgeries to restore her speech, movement, and sight. Pictured: Kechi before the crash (left) and 12 years after (right) performing on America’s Got Talent
She’d been singing since she was a little girl, but music took on new meaning during her recovery, as her mother (pictured) would play her favorite songs while she was in a coma
In 2015, Kechi graduated from the University of Saint Thomas in Texas, where she majored in economics, and inspired the hall as student speaker.
She received such a powerful reaction that she was invited to give a Ted Talk in London, that year, encouraging girls to be confident in themselves.
Then, she decided to try to realize her dream to be a singer.
The audience was left weeping on their feet during Kechi’s first performance, which the judges described as both delicate and powerful. She made it to the finale singing Conqueror by Estelle, to which Simon Cowell reacted: ‘That wasn’t a song, that was an anthem.’
LIFE-CHANGING SURGERY: FIXING INJURIES THAT HAVE HAMPERED KECHI’S DAILY LIFE FOR YEARS
Extra, which screens today in a special Thanksgiving episode, brought together a team of doctors, including Beverly Hills facial, plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr Andrew Frankel.
‘I felt that someone like that deserves an opportunity to have a good feeling about herself,’ Dr Frankel said.
Working with his associate Dr Demetre Arnaoutkis, Dr Frankel first restored basic function in Kechi’s face and neck.
The first surgery took more than four hours.
Extra, which screens today in a special Thanksgiving episode, brought together a team of doctors, including Beverly Hills facial, plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr Andrew Frankel
Next, he fixed her eyelids so she could close her eyes, and made her cheeks symmetrical.
Most importantly for Kechi, she can now turn her neck – which she demonstrates gleefully in a selfie video played in the episode (adding humbly that ‘this may not seem important to anyone else’).
For her arms, Kechi went to Dr Peter Grossman at the Grossman Burn Center in West Hills, California.
Most importantly for Kechi, she can now turn her neck to the right (pictured before surgery)
Using her arm was a struggle because she always felt pulling and tightness on stage
Working with his associate Dr Demetre Arnaoutkis, Dr Frankel (pictured) first restored basic function in Kechi’s face and neck
‘Using her arm, it’s a struggle for her, because she always feels that pulling and that tightness,’ Dr Grossman said
‘We’re going to release some of those tight areas to give her that range of motion that’s greater than she has now.
‘That’s the game plan for the first set of operations for Kechi.’
It’s a process that will take months, if not years.
But Kechi says she is already feeling a huge difference.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR KECHI: AGT THE CHAMPIONS
Kechi pictured after her first set of surgeries
Simon Cowell has asked Kechi back to compete in a select group of finalists from previous years for AGT: The Champions, which premieres on January 7 on NBC.
Kechi said she cannot believe how her life has turned around since that fateful day in 2005 when she narrowly survived.
Speaking at the end of the episode, she said she owes it all to Simon Cowell, who was the judge that took Kechi and propelled her to stardom.
In a selfie video she thanks Simon ‘for everything that has happened in my life since I appeared on your show America’s Got Talent.’
‘Because of the exposure that I got on that platform,’ she says, ‘amazing things have happened in my life.’
‘So I just want to tell you: thank you so much for everything you do for people like me, and I’m just so grateful that Extra saw me through your show and did all this for me as well.’
But Simon insists it should be the other way around.
‘It’s what she did for us, if I’m being honest with you,’ Simon said.
‘When you don’t have contestants like that, you have no show.’
- Tune in to Extra today for the full episode (check your local listings)