Mississippi State University student Brennan Bell has never let his disability hurt his chances of becoming an engineer.
The mechanical engineering student underwent several surgeries to correct his condition, known as pectus excavatum, and has always been determined to graduate on time. Despite numerous mental and physical obstacles, Bell has never given up on his dream career.
Pectus excavatum, also called sunken chest, is a condition where a person's breastbone is recessed or sunken into his or her chest. It is a congenital disorder, meaning it is present even from birth. Bell described the condition like having a cereal bowl-sized hole in his chest.
According to Bell, the effects of the condition were evident in his third and fourth grade years when he would play soccer. He was able to perform activities like his other peers; however, he quickly become short of breath and would have repeated chest pains.
When Bell started college, he knew he wanted to have surgery to correct his condition. The MSU student undertook a year of tests to determine whether he was a suitable candidate for the Nuss Procedure, a surgery that required a surgeon to place a steel bar inside Bell's chest in order to reposition it to its correct place.
Bell then went to Norfolk, Virginia, with his family to begin the surgery. What followed would be a six-month period of recovery where he endured weeks of physical pain. Bell had to prevail over challenges such as learning how to walk with the pressure in his chest and to learning how to run again.
After a week of staying in the hospital for the surgery, Bell went back to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College - Perkinston Campus so that he could return to classes. Throughout the semester, however, he continued to face physical challenges like having difficulty walking to class each day.
"I would just go to class holding my chest because it always felt like the bar in my chest was like pushing itself out," Bell said. "And so, I would just kind of hobble to class every morning. I was very stubborn. I was not going to miss any school whatsoever."
Bell faced several setbacks, including a scar tissue infection one month after the surgery which required him to leave classes for another week. But Bell's motivation led him to stay the semester and finish the classes he had started.
"I was always dead set. I never wanted to, you know, lose time or give up," Bell said. "Like, I'll want to have surgery and people were like, 'Oh, you know, you take a semester off and recover.' But I never wanted to do that. I wanted to stay in college."
The MSU student continued to recover rapidly, and six months later, he was able to run again and not feel any heavy pain in his chest. After his sophomore year, Bell transferred to MSU to continue his mechanical engineering courses.
With the rise in recovery for Bell came the rise in career opportunities, where he was able to take an engineering co-op in Blue Springs, Mississippi, at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant, only two years after his surgery.
Although Bell admits working at the plant was challenging at times, he is grateful for the project management and design engineering skills he learned during the time he was at his co-op.
Bell can attest one setback caused by the recent surgery was when he had to return to Norfolk for yet another procedure to get the steel bar in his chest removed. After his second surgery, Bell returned to the plant, but was limited in what he could do. The MSU student was not allowed to lift heavy objects, so his team members at the plant helped him with his responsibilities.
Despite his obstacles with his prior disability, Bell credits the people around him that have helped him with his physical health, college and work responsibilities. One such help was Renee Skalij, Bell's former counselor with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services' (MDRS) Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Skalij, who is now the deputy district manager of MDRS in District 10, credits Bell's determination in allowing him overcome difficulties with his disability.
"I talked to him about how very difficult mechanical engineering is. And the curriculum is just, you know, not many people really get through it," Skalij said. "It's kind of a pretty high failure rate. But he said, I'm going to be a mechanical engineer, I will do it. And even despite his medical disability, he said he was determined."
Bell's family has also been with him every step of his journey with his disability, from driving Bell back and forth for his surgeries to encouraging him with his studies.
Regina Bell, Brennan's mother, said both her and Brennan's father have continued to motivate him to pursue the path of becoming a mechanical engineer.
"His dad and I have always encouraged him and instilled in him that he can do anything he puts his mind to. We are very proud of him," Regina Bell said.
Brennan Bell is on track to graduate this December and has accepted a full-time position for Toyota as an engineer in San Antonio, Texas, at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas, Inc. plant.
Throughout his journey to become an engineer, Bell admits he never discarded his dream career. No matter what he has been through with his disability, instead of giving up, he always "set out to finish what he started."