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Career

The inspiring tale of a young woman who suffered severe burns as a child and is about to travel the world

Sophie Delezio has grown into a confident young woman about to leave home and travel overseas. She shares her quest for freedom with Michael Sheather.

By Michael Sheather
Sophie Delezio remembers the precise moment she fell in love with London.
"Mum and I were walking through the centre of the city," recalls Sophie, a pretty, spirited young woman about to turn 18.
"I was 15 at the time and Mum and I went to London. It was the two of us, so it was a girls' trip.
"We'd been to visit Kensington Gardens and were walking back. It came over all cloudy and drizzly, and then a freezing wind sprang up. I could feel the chilly air on my hands and face, and I remember thinking to myself, 'I love this'.
I love that feeling of having to rug up against the cold in winter woollies. It was like a winter wonderland – all the Christmas decorations, all the food, all the people. Everything about it held on to me and I instantly fell in love with it. Right then, I decided that one day I would make London my home."
Sophie at three years old, one year after the accident.
Sophie, the little girl who won Australia's heart with her bravery and endurance after a horrific car accident at a Sydney daycare centre in 2003, is about to turn that dream into a reality.
After completing high school last year, Sophie has applied for entrance to study sociology and international relations at no less than five top-ranking English universities, four of them in London.
Her choices mean that she must now forge a new life for herself in a new city and country – half a world away from the comfortable and supportive upbringing that she experienced at her family's home on Sydney's North Shore.
"Yes, a part of me is a little nervous about moving away," says Sophie, the daughter of Ron Delezio, a former electrician, and his wife Carolyn Martin, a teacher.
"Yet there is another part of me that is very excited. In fact, I can't wait to go. I know there are going to be tears when I get on the plane, but I know that will only be for a few moments.
"Yes, I will miss my family and my friends but at the same time there is a sense of anticipation that is almost overwhelming. It's as though I am finally getting an opportunity to spread my wings and sample everything that the world has to offer – but on my terms and in my own way. It's an adventure."
Like all adventures, there is an element of risk.
This will be Sophie's first attempt at coping with her complicated medical regime by herself. She feels that she is ready, having spent the past two years grappling with those complexities, readying herself for this moment.
"Sophie is a very determined young woman," says her father Ron, 65.
"She has had to be determined and strong all her life. After everything that she has endured in the past 15 years, her just being alive is a testament to how determined she really is. She has had a plan to live overseas for at least a couple of years and she's been quietly working toward that goal the entire time.
"Her injuries are such that she needs constant treatment from a team of surgical and burns-care specialists. She's probably had more than 100 operations to adjust the skin grafts that cover her body. That is an incredible amount of surgery for anyone to have, let alone a teenager who is trying to live life the best she can. Yet we've let her assume the responsibility for most of the regime herself in recent years. I can't tell you how proud I am of her. She's amazing."
Sophie,who has never let her disabilities define her, is ready to venture out on her own.
That Sophie is alive at all is nothing short of a miracle.
On December 15, 2003, a car driven by a 68-year-old man veered off a road and plunged through the front windows of the Roundhouse Childcare Centre in Fairlight.
The driver had suffered a seizure and his car crashed into a room where 36 toddlers were taking their morning nap.
Sophie and another little girl, Molly Wood, were trapped under the wreck, which burst into flames. Sophie suffered third-degree burns to 85 per cent of her body and lost both her feet, some fingers and her right ear.
Molly suffered deep tissue burns to 40 per cent of her body. She later lost another 40 per cent of her skin when the grafts became infected.
Remarkably, neither girl suffered any impact injuries from the car.
In the days that followed, Sophie teetered between life and death. Several times doctors called Ron and Carolyn into her hospital room with the expectation that the little girl would die. Yet somehow, Sophie held on.
"Sophie has no recollection of the accident or the weeks that followed," says Ron.
"We believe that those memories are simply too awful to come to the surface. I've often thought it's a blessing that she doesn't have to live with those memories."
As if that wasn't enough, fate intervened a second time.
On May 5, 2006, she was severely injured a second time when she was struck by a car as she crossed the road. Sophie was thrown 18 metres by the impact.
She suffered a broken jaw, broken shoulder, as well as bruising to her brain and head. All her ribs on the right side of her body were broken and pushed into her lungs.
"To this day, Sophie has lost her sense of smell," says Ron.
"Yet – and this is really unusual – she can still taste food. As I have always said, sometimes a little good comes out of something bad. Just after the first accident, she was very badly injured and there was no way to know if she would survive. The doctor asked us if we would prefer to turn off the life support machines.
"We said, 'How do we know how to answer that? How do we know, if we switch the machine off, whether we're doing the right thing? Or whether, if we don't switch the machine off, her life is going to be a very poor quality and a lot of pain all the way through? He advised us to sit and look at Sophie, to go to Sophie and 'see if you get that answer from her'.
And that's what we did. Today, we have a lovely, vivacious and tenacious young woman who we've had in our lives for [another] 15 years and is now about to go out into the world and live her life. That's something good."
Sophie knows there will be tears when she leaves but is excited to experience all the world has to offer.
Sophie's medical needs are many.
Every day she needs to change the dressings on a variety of minor wounds to her skin caused by friction from her artificial lower legs. Infection is an ever- present danger. Sophie's dressing always includes a silver-impregnated dressing to speed healing.
The most critical areas are just below her knee joints where her legs fit into the prosthetic limbs. By necessity they are a tight fit, and sudden movement causes tears in her fragile skin.
Despite this, Sophie is most often up and moving on her legs instead of relying on her wheelchair.
"I know the routine backwards and forwards," says Sophie.
"I know where every single piece of dressing is in my cupboard, how to apply and when. The only thing I sometimes can't do is wind a bandage around a part of my leg if it's at an odd angle. Then I might need a little help, but otherwise I am self-sufficient."
Sophie's mum, Carolyn, 59, views her daughter's imminent departure with a deep sense of pride.
"Sophie has never let her disabilities define her," she says.
"From very early in her recovery, we decided that we would allow her to do the things that she wanted to do. We asked ourselves whether we would have allowed her to do this if she hadn't had the accident. If the answer was yes, then of course she could.
"Along the way that has involved the support of friends and family, and Sophie herself in terms of her iron will and determination. She has a deep capacity to roll with the punches because not everything has gone to Plan A for Sophie. But she has an unrivalled capacity to bounce back from the setbacks,reposition herself, set new goals and forge ahead. I think that is one of her greatest strengths, along with her ability to not hold onto the disappointment of having to make those changes.
"It doesn't mean that she doesn't feel strong emotions when things don't go her way. She does, but she can let it go. She's a resilient soul who picks up the pieces and moves on. That is a flexible mindset with an ability to turn circumstances around and find a new pathway. There is an inexhaustibly positive view of the world, of a glass half full."
Carolyn is immensely proud of her brave daughter's hard fought independence.
Carolyn says that she and Ron have always tried to provide Sophie with the skills and strategies that she will need to cope in the world as an independent woman.
"Her decision to move to the UK is her decision and she feels that she has the capacity to manage that," says Carolyn.
"The fact that she has made that decision is a great win from our point of view. Whatever we may have done as parents
has given her the confidence to make that decision on her own and we are very proud of that."
Sophie's brother, Mitchell, 19, is happy for his sister but also anxious.
"I am not thrilled about the fact that she is moving so far away," says Mitchell, who is studying to be an architect.
"But she is very independent and this is what she wants to do, so I know that ultimately she will be all right. She's my only sibling, so of course I am concerned about her being so far away.
"I've been to England a few times and I don't see what she sees in it. I am very protective of her and that's one of the things about the move – that I might not be able to be there for her if she needs me. At the same time, I think she's too much of an individual to let obstacles get in her way. She's been working towards this for a long time and I think this is the final step towards being the person she's always wanted to be, without needing anyone to be there for her. Part of it is that she wants to go to England, but the other part is being independent. I just want her to be happy."
Sophie's brother Mitchell is anxious about his only sibling moving so far away
Looking at Sophie's face, you'd hardly think she could be anything but happy.
"Staying here in Australia after high school just hasn't been part of the plan," she says.
"There was a time when I was younger when I wanted to go to New York and live out the Gossip Girl life, but that was before I fell in love with London.
"My mum was also born in England, so I have an English passport. I applied for it last year. That just makes it all that much easier. I have applied to four universities in London and one other, in Sussex, which is where Mum grew up, and she still has some family there. So, whether I end up in Sussex or in London, I will live on campus at the university that I attend."
In the interim, Sophie will install herself into an apartment in London, giving her a base to explore the city as well as an opportunity to put in place the medical aspects of her move.
"I am very lucky because one of the doctors that I had when I first had my accident was an intern under my principal surgeon at Westmead Children's Hospital. That intern is now one of the leading burns specialists in London. He works at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. That is the major burns hospital in London.
"I remember him very clearly from when I was small. He was one of my favourite doctors. We have spoken to him and he already knows my case and he has an established connection with my doctor here.
He will help me with organising where to go for rehabilitation and movement therapy and all those other things that I need. I do most of my medical things myself but I will need help with some little things. I also have a friend coming over to stay for the first six weeks. She used to be my carer but she's now more like my sister and she will help me navigate setting up everything I need."
Sophie also has a close friend in London.
"We will live together for a couple of months while I find my way around. I can't wait to see London with her – I love drama and acting and London has all the theatre. It's going to be great. I also have my cousins in France and they aren't very far away."
Her studies, a double degree in sociology and international relations, will set Sophie up for a career working for international charities or in welfare and counselling.
"I haven't absolutely decided yet," she says.
"What I do know, at this stage, is that I want to help people. I think I can show people that, if I can get through something like this and still have a positive life, then perhaps they can too. I guess I just want to give back to people."

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