KINGSTON, R.I. – June 19, 2015 – Jessica Brand plops down in the sofa of her Exeter house, complaining about the sniffles. A bad cold is wiping her out, not the sex reassignment surgery she just had in California.
“You know you’re doing pretty well,” she says, with a chuckle, “when the cold is much worse than the recovery.”
A month ago, doctors were wheeling the 22-year-old University of Rhode Island graduate into an operating room at a hospital outside San Francisco to undergo surgery to complete her transition from a man to a woman. The procedure has left her “elated.”
“I can relax after all those years of suffering,” she says. “My body is finally right.”
It’s been a long and sometimes painful road for Jessica, who knew at the age of 2 that her body did not fit with her mind. She kept her secret inside until puberty, when she couldn’t stand to look in the mirror. Eventually, she found the courage to tell her family that she was a woman. The next step was hormone therapy and, eventually, surgery.
Dr. Marci Lee Bowers, an internationally recognized surgeon who specializes in transgender surgery and is also a transgender woman, performed the operation at Mills Peninsula Hospital in Burlingame, Calif. Jessica says her URI health insurance covered much of the cost.
“I couldn’t have done this without the support of URI,” she says. “I’m eternally grateful.”
Jessica flew out to California by herself on May 9, and stayed in a hotel near the hospital. She had a few days to see the sights. She went to a game at AT&T Park between the Giants and Marlins, met a friend who underwent the surgery 20 years ago and joined a relative for an Italian dinner of chicken parmesan.
The night before the surgery she slept soundly. Nervous? “Not at all,” she says. “I was calm and happy it was going to happen. I’d been waiting for this all my life.” Her mother, Susan Trostle Brand, a URI education professor, and sisters, Faith, 12, and Fiona, 9, flew in the day before the surgery.
As Jessica was wheeled into the operating room, Fiona’s eyes welled with tears. So did Susan’s. “It was a huge milestone for Jessica,” says Susan. “I thought I had a son and now I’m getting a daughter, so there was a combination of nostalgia, relief and gratitude – almost like a birth.”
Susan, Faith and Fiona have stood by Jessica since she told her mother – and father, Stephen Brand, a URI education professor who died in 2013 – that she was a girl in a boy’s body.
The procedure took four hours. “I don’t even remember counting down,” she says. “That’s how quickly I was out.” The operation, first successfully performed in the 1960s, is more complex than people think.
“A lot of people are under the misconception that it simply gets removed. That’s just not done,” says Jessica. “It’s sort of like shape-shifting.”
Moments after surgery, everyone knew Jessica was fine: She started cracking jokes. Her mother and sisters bought her a pink balloon that said, “It’s a girl!” Jessica remained in the hospital for a few days and then returned to her hotel for recovery so she could be close to her doctors.
“I can’t even tell you how overjoyed I felt,” she says. “I felt so free of stress and loathing of my body. I had a smile on my face every day.”
On May 24, she returned home to Exeter, where she’s been recuperating, cooking, watching movies and reading. So far, she hasn’t had any complications.
Over the next few months, she’ll continue to see Dr. Michelle Forcier, the pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital who prescribed hormone therapy. “She basically saved my life,” says Jessica. “It was that or death.”
Susan says the surgery has changed her daughter’s life. “She’s been waiting so long to achieve independence and be who she really is. She keeps saying, ‘I’m so happy. I’m so happy.’ ”
Jessica has found time to socialize a bit. Not long ago, she crowned the new queen at the “Born This Way” prom in Newport. (Jessica was the queen last year.) And she’s talked to the two New York filmmakers, Jenn Hallam and Jane Renaud, who are making a documentary about her transgender experience that will be released next year. Jessica is prominently featured in the film, “What I’m Made Of.”
She also celebrated her 23rd birthday on June 2 during dinner with her mom. Her favorite present was a colorful bikini, which she plans to model for the filmmakers when they come to see her this summer. She’s proud of her body, she says, and eager to show it off.
Public speaking opportunities to talk about what she’s been through are also a possibility.
“If I did all this – speaking out – just for me it wouldn’t really have an impact on anyone else,” she says. “I think I can make a difference for other people.”
What does she think about the new Caitlyn Jenner?
“I appreciate Jenner’s quest to become herself. But it’s really more about Jenner than anyone else,” Jessica says. “There are so many young transgender people who need guidance. That’s where the focus should be. I want to get out there now. Life is short. I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference.”
To show their gratitude, Jessica and Susan sent Dr. Bowers a book. The title: “Miracles.”
Pictured above: Jessica Brand, 23, of Exeter, a University of Rhode Island graduate who had sexual reassignment surgery in June in California, and her mother, Susan Trostle Brand.
Photo by Nora Lewis, URI staff photographer.