Student overcame hurdles to graduate
Published: Thursday, May 18th, 2006
Her back is turned as she runs a brush through her long, black hair. She looks away from the mirror, and sits down on the hospital bed, where she has draped a bright, SpongeBob SquarePants blanket over the thin, white sheets. Suddenly, it is obvious. Erica Lopez isn’t the typical soon-to-be high school graduate. Her abdomen is round and swollen, a product of kidney failure. The 19-year-old student at Choices High School was diagnosed with liver cancer as an infant. She underwent two transplant surgeries that left her stomach crisscrossed with scars. Her kidneys were damaged by the medicine she was given to help, according to her mother. Lopez is in the hospital today because of pneumonia. Her right lung is filled with fluid. As a dialysis patient, Lopez is well acquainted with long hospital stays. Toxic substances that accumulate in her blood must be removed three times a week. A maze of tubes protrudes from her body. One snakes across her chest, another is buried under her armpit. Another is embedded in her left wrist. Although her brother has agreed to donate his kidney, transplant surgeries are performed on a basis of urgency. Ironically, it is her pneumonia, rather than her kidney failure, that will keep her from attending her graduation ceremony along with 115 other graduates of Choices, an alternative school for non-traditional Clovis High School students with special learning needs. “Our true mission is to ensure all students are given the opportunity to reach a high school diploma,” Choices Superintendent Scott Sparks said. “We create individualized educational plans for each and every one of our students,” he said. Choices provided tutors who came directly to Lopez. The school, lodged in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to accommodate the diverse schedules of its students, Sparks said. “I went to the Clovis High School one day with my cousin,” said Lopez, who on the visit, saw two students bullying a girl. “Suddenly, it hit me. I would not be able to handle school there. I am really sensitive and I cry about everything. “Choices and the teachers there helped me in many ways,” she said. Lopez plans to attend Clovis Community College and become a pediatric nurse. “That’s my dream,” the petite girl said, sitting upright in the middle of her hospital bed. She has met too many nurses to remember their names, but the kind ones have left strong impressions on her, she said. During her second liver transplant, when Lopez was just 11, she went into a coma that lasted seven months, she said. She stopped breathing for 15 minutes while the operation was being performed, according to her mother. At the time, Lopez said she had a near-death experience. She said she dreamed she was surrounded by a garden of colorful roses, her father by her side. A bright light, which Lopez describes as a crystal, shined in the distance. Lopez said she reached down to pick a white rose. As she did so, the light grew closer, while the rose grew farther and farther away. A voice told her she would “do miracles,” she said, and it wasn’t her time to die. “Nurses do miracles,” she said, glancing down toward her nails, painted a metallic blue. “There are some things in life that I still don’t understand. Sometimes I don’t understand why it had to be me. But what is done is done. And life goes on,” Lopez said. Her mother, Ramona Lopez, sitting quietly in a chair and often growing teary-eyed as her daughter retold her medical saga, said she is an example to other students. “She goes for her goals,” the elder Lopez said, her daughter translating her words from Spanish into English. “There are kids who are not sick, and she is an example to them to go for your goals.” Despite her medical troubles, Erica Lopez will be the first person from her family to graduate from high school. Area high school graduations: Friday • Clovis Christian — 6:30 p.m., school sanctuary Saturday • Clovis — 10 a.m., Rock Staubus Gym • Choices — 4 p.m., Rock Staubus Gym • Melrose — 7 p.m. Sunday • Grady — 5 p.m.
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