Kennitra Thompson, 23, seemed to have everything going for her. The 4’9” bundle of energy, talent and drive was well on her way to fulfilling her dreams and preparing to compete in the Miss Mississippi pageant when fate took an ugly turn.
A month after being named Miss Rankin County Southwest, the JSU communications major awoke one morning with sniffles. “I thought I was coming down with a cold,” she says. A few days later, she lay in a coma on life support at University Medical Center. Her small but athletic dancer’s body was rapidly, and literally, destroying itself.
“It was as though my body was being burned from the inside out,” says Thompson, who had fallen victim to the rare and usually fatal disease Steven Johnson Syndrome, an extreme allergic reaction to a medication. Even something as simple as a widely used over-the-counter medication can trigger the disease. There is no one medication that causes it, and there is no cure, she says.
Her every organ was affected, and huge blisters formed all over her body as her top layer of skin died and shed. Her immune system was nearly destroyed.
“There is no or specific treatment for the disease, it just has to run its course,” says the daughter of George and Patricia Thompson of Jackson.
As the disease progressed, her face became “unidentifiable.” Thompson says. “My lower lip literally rested on my chest, and skin fell from my body.”
In April, a month after contracting the disease, Thompson surprised the medical professionals. She had survived. People usually don’t live more than a month after they’ve contracted the disease,” she says.
In the following weeks, Thompson even had to learn to walk again. Today, she’s busy rehearsing her dance routine for the July pageant and visiting a team of doctors several times a month – an ophthalmologist, a dermatologist and a medical doctor. Her eyes and skin are now extremely sensitive to sunlight and her beauty- queen complexion is now covered with discolored spots, she says.
“That beauty is more than skin deep is so true. I talk about the skin that I’m in and I embrace it. I will compete with the skin that I’m in. It’s called a disability, but I don’t recognize it as a disability,” she laughs. “I call it differently abled.
“I still have a lot of obstacles to overcome in a lot of ways everyday, but I find ways to get past them. Yes, I get discouraged, and I have to encourage myself. It gets hard, but I tell myself that I was left here for a purpose. I’m one out of million to get SJS and survive, so I’m using my negative as a positive.”
SJS awareness is now her “passionate platform” as a Miss Mississippi competitor. Whether she’ll fully recover is unknown. “SJS is so rare, and there’s been so very little research on it.”
Thompson, however, aims to change that. “I can speak from first-hand experience,” she says.
“My platform is my legacy because it is my personal testimony. Through it I hope to inspire others to defy their odds. I may not be what some would define as the stereotypical beauty. However, I hope my servitude and self-embracement will exemplify that this perfectly imperfect girl prides herself on wearing two crowns, one on her head and one in her heart.”
The pageant, in its 56th year, runs July 10-13, with the finals being broadcast live July 13 by WLBT-TV from the Vicksburg Convention Center. See www.missmississippipageant.com for more information. JSU student A’Kendra Lewis, who was crowned Miss Clinton earlier this year, will also be competing in the pageant.