CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Tiffany Rivera turns heads when she lowers her welding helmet. First, they stare at her tiny frame -- 4-foot-9. Then they gawk at her welds, expert work for someone so young, her instructors say.
What they don't see are Tiffany's daily struggles with the lifelong effects of a rare and often crippling disease: The 32 surgeries, the catheter tucked behind her jeans pocket, the diagnosis that her bowels and bladder will never function properly.
Born with spina bifida, the 17-year-old high-school junior has overcome adversity to become a top high-school welder.
Tiffany was diagnosed as a baby, and doctors feared she would never walk. From her first steps at 11 months old to her unlikely interest in a profession dominated by men, Tiffany has spent her life defying expectations.
"I've been proving doctors wrong all my life," she said. "Now it's time for me to prove statistics wrong."
While some babies are diagnosed with spina bifida before they're born, no one realized Tiffany had the birth defect until her first checkup.
A birthmark and an odd tuft of hair on her back tipped off Tiffany's doctor that something was amiss, her mother, Leticia Vasquez, said. He immediately sent Tiffany to see a neurologist.
The next morning, she underwent the first of many spinal surgeries to come. She was 2 weeks old, and it was the first time Vasquez had heard of spina bifida.
Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the spinal cord or its coverings do not completely develop. It can be mild to severe, depending on the size, location and extent of the malformation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While some people have no noticeable problems, others are paralyzed for life.
Like many of those diagnosed with the birth defect, Tiffany's sole lingering side effect is that she can't control when she goes to the bathroom. She wore diapers until she was 9 years old, and now laughs at how they were uncomfortably loud when she shifted in her seat in class.
Later, she had a catheter inserted in her bladder to help drain her urine, a much more discreet option for dealing with the complications doctors say she will struggle with for the rest of her life.
Still, many people don't realize Tiffany has spina bifida, her mother said. At one spina bifida group meeting, another mother accused Tiffany of being a completely healthy child, Vasquez said.
"I'm just a normal kid, but with spina bifida," Tiffany said. "I do everything a normal kid would do, too, and people are shocked by that."
During her sophomore year, Tiffany enrolled in welding class alongside her older brother, though welding was an unlikely choice for the self-proclaimed "girlie girl" whose favorite pastime is shopping at the mall.
Tiffany swapped her carefully curled hair and strappy sandals for thick boots and protective welding gear, and fell in love.
"I could be having the worst day ever, and welding just takes my mind off everything," she said. "When I'm welding, I'm singing in my head."
Welding hasn't always come easy for her, she said. There have been times she grew so frustrated that she burst into tears. Still, her struggles with spina bifida have made her tougher and taught her never to take life for granted, she said.
That happy-go-lucky attitude, combined with her bubbly personality, has won over instructors and her male classmates who were at first skeptical that this tiny girl could master a trade populated by big men.
"What a cute little welder," Ronnie Cuellar thought when he first met Tiffany.
But after spending a summer welding alongside her in intensive welding courses, the senior had a newfound respect for the girl who had quickly caught up to him in class.
"I give any girl respect for doing this," Ronnie said. "It's dirty and dangerous. I have burn marks all over my arms, and I'm sure she does, too. It's honestly a profession that was made for men. But she's an independent woman and I like that."
Tiffany is a year younger than Ronnie, an all-star in the welding class, but she is only one step down from his expertise level. She has mastered the ability to weld plates and has started welding pipes, one of the few students to do so and the only girl in class to master the skill.
She is eyeing welding schools in Harlingen, Texas, and, to her mother's dismay, as far away as Phoenix.
Her first welding instructor, Don Linsteadt, said Tiffany has a bright future in welding. Women welders often are in high demand, and her tiny stature allows her to fit in small spaces larger male welders can't reach.
"I think she's got a better future than the guys," he said.
(Contact Rhiannon Meyers of the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi, Texas, at www.caller.com.)