Young burn victim defies expectations about leading his life

By Michael Tsai-advertiser, Associated Press | Posted - Sep. 4, 2015 at 7:31 p.m.

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HONOLULU (AP) — People don't know. They just don't.

And so upon seeing Cody Costa for the first time, young children sometimes scream and run away, and well-intentioned old ladies smile benevolently and try to press a dollar into his hand.

So newly introduced acquaintances speak extra loudly, unsure if Costa can hear (he doesn't have earlobes, after all) or even comprehend what they're saying (he certainly can), reported the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

So eye doctors apply moisturizing drops to his fever-red eyes without bothering to find out that, even without the benefit of hands, Costa is more than capable of applying his own drops, thank you.

People don't know, and understanding this is what enables Costa to shrug it all off, to avoid viewing the world with the same judgmental eyes through which he himself is so often appraised.

"Sometimes people catch a glance at me and say, 'Whoa!'" Costa said. "I'm used to it. I don't let it bother me."

Costa bears most obviously the marks of a horrific childhood accident that left him with third-degree burns over 75 percent of his body. Against every reasonable prognosis, Costa survived and has spent most of the last two decades defying expectations of what his life could and should be. Now at age 23, he is trying to carve a niche for himself in the adult working world.

This summer he began working at Island Skill Gathering's South King Street location. Under the tutelage of Michael Miyashiro, Costa learned the ins and outs of selling a range of assistive devices for those with visual and hearing impairments.

The two get along well. Both have experienced significant vision loss, Miyashiro through a combination of eye trauma and glaucoma, and Costa as a result of corneal damage from not having eyelids. More important, they share the same dark sense of humor and low tolerance for pretense.

"(Miyashiro) seemed like a cocky guy when I first met him," Costa said. "I liked that. He's pretty cool."

Yet, while the two enjoy working together and the work itself goes smoothly, the very fact of their acquaintance leaves Miyashiro shaking his head.

Costa was placed with ISG through Ho'opono Services for the Blind, a branch of the state Department of Human Services' Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Costa, whose vision has slowly worsened, had been involved with Ho'opono for several years, participating in skill-development courses, camps and social activities. And as it has done for so many other clients, Ho'opono worked through its network of community partners to give Costa an opportunity to gain work experience.

"I understand it," said Miyashiro, a former professional soccer player who has been legally blind since 1999. "But I also kind of think it's BS. Compared to a lot of others, Cody should be doing a lot more. There are so many things he does that make you think, 'He shouldn't be able to do that.' He's level-headed. He's normal. He should be doing more than this."

People don't know, and so it helps to prepare them.

When Costa was a child, his grandmother Donna Costa would prepare little brochures to give to students at his school and teammates on his soccer teams before they met him. They included a photo of Cody and an explanation that while he might look different and do things differently, he was just like them.

The brochures worked well in giving Costa the fair shot he needed to make friends. Still, there was so much that could never be adequately communicated.

Costa was 2 years old when his mother brought him to an aunt's house for a visit and placed him in a crib upstairs. At some point during the visit, a young cousin with Down syndrome got hold of a lighter and, without understanding the consequences, set Costa's blanket ablaze.

The fire took Costa's ears, nose, lips and eyelids. It consumed his hands and forearms, eventually leading to amputation. At one point doctors had to use a pen to clear an airway where Costa's nose had been to keep the toddler from suffocating.

Doctors gave Costa just a 2 percent chance of surviving.

Donna Costa was the first to arrive at the hospital.

"I didn't think he was going to survive it," she said. "I was most concerned that he hadn't been baptized yet, so we arranged to do it in the triage room."

Cody Costa spent two months mercifully in a coma. He was in intensive care for seven months. He would spend his recovery shuffling between Texas, California and Hawaii for surgeries and other treatments. Over the years, he has undergone more than 75 surgeries, including skin grafts and facial reconstruction.

Donna Costa and her husband, Wayne, took over custody of Cody Costa and his brother a few years after the accident. It was on their dairy farm in Waianae that he recovered his health, pushed past his physical limitations and nurtured his dreams of living a normal life.

"It was an exciting childhood," Costa said, laughing. "My grandparents made sure we all worked. They made all of us chase cows."

Costa thrived under the tough-love guidance of his grandmother, who held him to the same standards as the rest of her kids. He climbed rock walls while in the Boy Scouts. He completed the elevated rope course at Camp Erdman. In PE he did whatever it took to outperform his classmates.

Along the way, he made friends with help from his sense of humor and penchant for crazy stunts. And on those rare occasions when he'd be targeted by a would-be bully, Costa took care of things in what he calls "the Waianae way": "We'd settle it and later we'd become friends."

There were bad days, to be sure. Once Donna Costa took her grandson on a much-begged-for visit to the Discovery Zone, an elaborate children's play facility, in Waikele.

"He was happy as a clam," Costa said. "But then he went in a crowded chute and a little girl saw him. She just went ape. Her father saw what happened and he felt terrible, but she couldn't stop screaming."

Costa rushed an oblivious Cody outside.

"He wanted to know why we had to leave, and I tried to explain it to him," Costa said. "We just sat there in the car together and cried."

Through good times and bad, Costa has always found solace in art. Wielding his upper arms like highly adept chopsticks, Costa can spend hours drawing fantastical images in the style of Japanese manga and anime with a pencil or, more often, with high-tech instruments connected to his computer.

At first art was a way for Costa to break the ice with cautious classmates, who would see his sketches and ask him to draw something for them. In time it became something more meaningful: a way for Costa to express what his body cannot.

The skin on Costa's face is taut and rigid, making it difficult for him to express his immediate feelings through smiles or frowns, grins or grimaces. What lies deeper can be even more difficult to communicate.

"I draw what I want to see," Costa said. "My characters express what I'm thinking. I draw faces because I can't make facial expressions. I put my emotions on my character's faces."

People don't know but they can always ask.

Ask about the things he loves most and Costa will happily talk about all-night video game marathons, playing with pellet guns at the dairy and hanging out with his best friends, Colby and Joshua, whenever they're in town.

Ask what bothers him and he'll describe the way his eyelashes abrade his eyes if he doesn't pluck them, or the way he suffers in heat because he can't sweat properly, or how the ends of his arms bruise when he draws for too long.

Ask about his injuries — ask, that is, why he looks the way he does — and he will tell you as much as you want to know. He might weary of the repeating himself, but surely it's better than people guessing at a distance.

Ask about the future and, well, that's where things get a little speculative.

Costa is at a crossroads familiar to many young men his age. His high school friends have moved away. He's aged beyond many of the programs available for young people with vision impairments. He takes classes at Leeward Community Colleges but is unsure where it will lead.

Donna Costa thinks his easy voice and quick wit would be a good match for a broadcast career. Miyashiro, of Ho'opono Services, thinks Cody should pursue his art. Costa himself entertains thoughts of applying his artistic skills to animation and possibly getting a job with a video game developer.

At the same time, Costa's vision has worsened considerably, and, according to his grandmother, he is reluctant to embrace the adaptive techniques and technologies that Ho'opono Services promotes. She fears his uncertainty about the future has left him in a state of cautious inertia.

"When he was younger he was boundless, but he's become more guarded," Donna Costa said. "He wants to sleep all day and play video games, but nobody is sleeping all day on my watch."

Still, she is confident her grandson will figure things out. She is unwilling, as ever, to lower her expectations.

"I want Cody to have a family," she said. "If I can live long enough for that to happen, for him to find a person who cares for him and can see past the outside, I will be very happy."

On this point Cody Costa is in complete agreement. Just ask.

"I want to be married and have kids and have a nice house like the one I grew up in," he says. "I'm optimistic."


Information from: Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

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Michael Tsai-Advertiser


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