Born in the Philippines with only one hand and an undersized right leg, Mary Grace Gellekanao embarrassed some in her family, who told her to stay in her room when people visited.
“I didn’t have any friends. I had nobody to talk to,” she said. “As a kid, I didn’t know what was going on. When I would look at myself in the mirror, I would cry because I looked different from everybody else, and it came to the point where I would question God: ‘What did I do so wrong to deserve being born like this?’”
But, when Gellekanao was 6, she showed interest in her grandmother’s piano. Her grandmother sought a teacher willing to work with a student with a right arm that ended just below the elbow and a right leg that couldn’t reach the pedals. Three turned her down.
“She actually made a bargain with the fourth teacher by telling her, ‘Why don’t we do this: You can teach Mary Grace to play with her left hand only and charge me for the price of both hands,’” Gellekanao said.
Whatever the fee, it was money well spent.
At 17, Gellekanao played for crowds in Guam, Europe and Thailand. In 2001, performing at a church in Alexandria, she met Reva Wallace Moore, also a Philippine native, and they became friends. Gellekanao returned to the Philippines, but came back in 2003 and began living with Moore and her husband, Irlant, in Denham Springs while establishing a performing career.
Most weekends, Gellekanao — known professionally as Mary Grace — performs and tells her story at churches and conferences around the country. Much of her story is how her Christian faith helps her overcome obstacles.
The hurdles haven’t stopped coming. Gellekanao, 35, was traveling to Boston in May when she lost her balance and fell in the Atlanta airport. She broke her right leg, which is eight inches shorter and considerably thinner than her left leg.
She had surgery to repair the broken femur, but after a month it was not mending, so she had the surgery repeated, this time by Dr. Meredith Warner at Baton Rouge General Medical Center Mid-City.
On June 20, she was entering the hospital when she noticed the shiny Yamaha piano in the lobby. Kim Henderson, supervisor of the General’s Arts in Medicine program, was setting up for the program’s weekly Friday Lunch Live concert and asked Gellekanao if she played the piano. When told yes, Henderson invited her to do so. Gellekanao played “My Tribute,” a Christian song also known by a line from its refrain, “To God Be the Glory.”
“I said, ‘You’re going to play a concert for me if you would,’” Henderson said.
On Oct. 3, she did, only her second concert since her injury. A handful of patients and hospital staff turned out to hear her play eight Christian songs, several arranged to include interludes of classical music.
And to watch. With a right arm that ends in a stump only a couple of inches below an immobile elbow, she plays the songs’ melody. Playing the melody with the right hand is not unusual, but since Gellekanao can only play one note with her arm, she uses her left to complete the chords. Both arms are a frenzy of motion as she plays. The shortness of her right arm forces her to lean forward, which, she says, is hard on her back.
The hospital concert was free to those who attended as part of the hospital’s program that brings creative activities to patients and family members through painting, crafts and music. The Friday concerts began in October 2012.
When Gellekanao usually performs, it is to raise money for two charities, Adopt a Minister International, which pays salaries of unemployed ministerial graduates in the Philippines, and Help the Needy, which ministers to the poor in several countries.
That her physical handicaps might easily have made her in need of such help is not lost on Gellekanao, but she sees it differently. If her right arm were shorter or longer, or if the elbow functioned, it would be harder to play piano. The fleshy protrusion at the end of her right arm’s stump is the right size to hit one key.
“So, I know without a doubt I was created perfect after all,” she said.