When I first learned about Diana Shafer, a 30-year-old woman from San Jose, California, I was immediately impressed. Besides her awesome Martial Arts photos, one of the things I found really interesting was that she first discovered BPI in college. When she was born, her mother didn’t speak English very well, due to the fact that she had emigrated from Vietnam. Diana’s research on Erb’s Palsy began when she was preparing for an oral presentation. She chose for the topic to be about herself so she could discuss her injury openly for the first time.
This says a lot about Diana’s self-confidence. It’s not easy to talk about something, in front of your peers, that has been a lifelong struggle. But Diana did that and succeeded.
Since then she has gotten involved in Martial Arts and has created an Instagram account and YouTube channel. Her motivation is to help others who deal with similar struggles and inspire them to soar beyond their dreams.
In addition to these great accomplishments, Diana is getting married this month and is a stepmother to two children.
Q & A
Hi Diana! Thanks so much for sharing your story with me. Can you tell me when your Erb’s Palsy symptoms began and how your arm is affected?
I have had a Brachial Plexus Injury to my right arm since birth. I was injured by the doctor during delivery. My right arm has limited movement due to severed nerves. My right arm is slightly shorter and smaller than my left. I cannot raise my arm at the shoulder, but I do have the ability to raise my arm at the elbow to 90 degrees. I do not have a strong grip in my right hand and I have minimal feeling in my hand as well. I have waiter’s tip, which is a deformity of the affected wrist. I also have Horner’s syndrome, which affects my right eye, in which it droops slightly.
What types of therapy have you done? Do you still go for therapy?
I had physical therapy when I was a child, but I have never been as an adult.
Have you ever had surgery?
I had a surgery to my arm when I was four or five years old. The surgery was meant to help with the functionality of my arm. I had the opportunity to have additional surgeries in my later twenties when I became interested in improving my mobility. I chose not to have any additional surgeries because, in my opinion, I had lived twenty-something years adapting to daily life and I didn’t think that the surgeries and therapy were worth it. It did not guarantee more functionality because of my age. It is better to have surgery as a child and as you get older it’s harder to fix.
Have you always played sports? If so, which ones?
I was not involved in sports prior to Muay Thai Kickboxing and Jiu Jitsu. I was never comfortable enough to play sports. I really wanted to go outside of my comfort zone, so I challenged myself to begin Martial Arts.
When did you begin doing Martial Arts and why?
In 2012, I started training at Dynamic MMA in the Muay Thai program with Kru Matt Miller. I began doing Jiu Jitsu in 2013 after being convinced by Paul Mendoza, the owner, and a friend of mine, Justine. Since I spent the money purchasing an expensive gi (uniform) I decided I would give it a good try. Another reason I wanted to try Jiu Jitsu was because it was a new challenge. I was drawn to the art quickly because of the way Jiu Jitsu allows you to be super creative and build your own game. I have been modifying Jiu JItsu to fit me because I am predominantly left-handed.
Have you been a part of any competitions?
I have been in several Jiu Jitsu competitions. At the white belt level, I even competed against a higher-level blue belt competitor. Competing is a challenge that I have enjoyed.
What have you learned about yourself by doing Martial Arts?
I have learned to have more self-confidence, to attain life-saving self-defense skills, and to challenge, improve, and grow every day. The biggest thing that I have learned about myself by doing Martial Arts is that I can do anything that may seem impossible. For example, most people learn a move with a series of steps, whereas I have the ability to modify the move. Since I have to do this, it has helped me become better in other areas, such as using hooks and having a strong grip. Jiu Jitsu has allowed me to grow on and off the mats, as well as challenge myself in other areas of my life.
What is the hardest part about doing this sport?
The hardest part is not having the time to train more. I live a pretty busy life, raising two kids and getting ready for our wedding. Also when I have competed in the past, I would say cutting weight for a completion has been the hardest part because it is not only testing you physically, but mentally too. Since the gi can weigh up to 4 lbs., you have to consider that into your weight cut as well. It is a rewarding feeling knowing what I am capable of pushing myself to do.
What is the best part about doing Martial Arts?
The best part is training hard and creating meaningful relationships. I have had the opportunity to train at other schools and go to seminars where I have met some awesome people. Along with meeting new people, I would say another best part is that I never would have met my fiancé James. I love that we both have the same love and passion for Jiu Jitsu.
How has your fiancé helped and supported you in daily life, with Martial Arts, etc.?
My fiancé James has helped me in many ways in my daily life, Martial Arts, and always being supportive. James has been patient, caring, and has even learned to do many hairstyles, including a ponytail, French braids, and boxer braids. Not many people can say that their significant other has learned to style their hair for them because doing it with one arm can be difficult. He’s my right-hand man at the gym and at Jiu Jitsu helping me modify movements, such as one-arm chokes. James also helped me put together a Jiu Jitsu seminar to spread Brachial Plexus Injury awareness. At the time, I was a white belt so he taught the moves and I was able to talk about my injury and discuss how I train. He has always been supportive in anything I want to do and very encouraging when I doubt myself.
Do you find that it’s difficult to explain your injury to others?
I find it easy to explain my injury to others, but I do find some people are surprised because they were unaware that this could happen at birth. I find that it can be difficult to explain to children because most of them think my arm is broken forever. I found a book called Herbie & His Special Armand it’s a great way to explain BPI because it’s written in kid-friendly terms. My two stepchildren both became curious, so I bought the book to read to them and now they have a better understanding of the injury.
Do you have any specific trainers who have helped you to modify movements or improve in general?
When I started training Martial Arts at Dynamic MMA, I began working with Matt Miller, my Muay Thai Kickboxing instructor. He has helped me grow from the very beginning by pushing me to my limits. In the beginning, I didn’t know how to do a push-up and now can do a one-armed push-up. Without the help of Matt, I wouldn’t have known my own abilities to push myself beyond my limits. Additionally, Paul Mendoza has always helped me because he could identify with me. Paul had a major motorcycle injury and had to learn to adapt many of his techniques to work around his physical impairments. Also, my fiancé James has always been positive and encouraging since I began Jiu Jitsu. He has always taken the time to help me modify techniques to fit my abilities. All of my teammates from Ralph Gracie have been there for me to help me grow in my Jiu Jitsu and improve my self-confidence. They’ve never treated me differently and have been very patient with me. Ralph Gracie, Kurt Osiander, and Christie Sullivan have all helped me when I’ve visited other schools.
Do you have any goals for the future?
Well, right now I have been focusing on planning my wedding, raising my two stepchildren, and keeping up with daily life. After I get married, I plan on having a child and focusing on attaining my teaching credentials or returning to school to pursue a teaching permit in child development. As far as my goals for Jiu Jitsu, I plan to work on putting more time on the mats to earn my purple belt. In addition, I would love to compete in another Jiu Jitsu competition.
What would you say to people with Erb’s Palsy who are nervous about starting Jiu Jitsu?
Jiu Jitsu is for everyone and it’s super fun. It is also the most adaptable Martial Art for people with BPI. If you never push yourself out of your comfort zone, you will never know what you are able of. If you put your mind to it and give it your all, you can achieve anything. Don’t let a limitation stop you from trying something you may love. I love this quote from Baxter “The One Arm Bandit” Humby who is a Muay Thai Kickboxing Champion, “The only limits are the ones you put on yourself.”