The first day of school in Roselle Park was this past Thursday. For most students, the end of summer and start of classes brought on groans about the start of school and concerns about what the school year will bring. For 17-year-old Monica Garcia, who is a senior this year at Roselle Park High School (RPHS), the challenges she has had to face to get to her first day back at school were more than most.
Thursday was Monica’s first day back at school after spending almost two years in hospitals, in physical therapy, in surgeries, in wheelchairs, and in a fight to bring things back to the way things were before October 9, 2012.
On that day, while warming up for soccer practice, the active teenager complained of a headache but knew something was different, she knew something was wrong. Her coach called Pam Alvarez, Monica’s mom, to let her know of Monica’s headache. Pam, hearing her daughter in the background, also knew something was wrong. She told her daughter’s coach to call an ambulance. Monica’s headache turned out to be an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is a tangle of abnormal arteries and veins which were about to rupture in Monica’s brain.
Had Monica not complained and tried to play through the pain, had her coach not called Monica’s mother, had Pam not insisted on an ambulance, or had Monica just gone home and tried to sleep it off, things could have turned tragic. But, that bond between mother and daughter was the connection that basically saved her life.
Still, the road back has not been an easy one. There were numerous surgeries including one to remove a piece of Monica’s skull to relieve the pressure in her brain and another that had her flatline and caused a stroke. There was also the loss of feeling on her right side, her inability to walk, her inability to communicate coherently, holidays and birthdays in hospitals, and understandable frustration during her rehabilitation.
But she was not alone.
She had numerous visits, cards, and well wishes from friends, fellow students, teachers, and administrators. The one constant was her family and siblings but most of all it was Pam, her mom; a woman, who just by talking with her, you could tell that she would take her daughter’s place in a heartbeat.
“I was so scared,” she recalled, “I would give anything to make it go away but I knew that we, that Monica, had a lot of hard work to do. I never doubted she wouldn’t be able to do it.”
As for Monica, she does not remember any of the incident other than waking up at a hospital scared and asking to go home. She does remember Halloween and Thanksgivings and her birthday and Valentine’s Day in hospital rooms. She remembers going to bed and waking up in hospital beds alone. But she does not feel sorry for herself. Being at Children’s Specialized Hospital, she got to see others who had even more serious conditions than she had. Recalling her time with other teenagers, Monica said, “Other kids my age and younger were dealing with tougher things than me. It inspired me to work at getting stronger.”
Being told that Monica might never walk again was something that Pam and Monica found as an unacceptable prognosis. Pam documented every achievement, from Monica standing up the first time from a wheelchair to Monica dancing for the first time after all her surgeries to Monica walking to Monica doing the simplest of tasks we all take for granted, like turning on a light switch or opening a refrigerator door.
“I remember she recently wanted something from the fridge and she opened the door on her own,” recounted Pam, “Something so simple was such an achievement.”
Just to understand, the next time you open a refrigerator door, pay attention to the coordination and muscle strength and motor skills needed to do that one task. Understanding that will give a glimpse into what Monica has had to endure.
Monica even recalls how she has changed in other ways beyond the physical. She said about how she has grown emotionally, “I remember before, I used to be a little bit mean sometimes. Now I see how I could have been better. I’m not that girl anymore.”
From almost dying on a surgery table to losing all feeling on her right side to simply walking up the steps to class as the bell rings, both Pam and Monica have learned to never take anything for granted. And while most involved have moved on noting Monica as a ‘success story’, both mother and daughter know there is still a lot of work to do. Although many aspects have improved, Monica still works on getting full sensation in the fingers of her right hand, among other things. For Monica, the progress continues and is a part of her journey through life.
Still, Monica does not want anyone to feel sorry for her. In fact, when asked what is the one thing she would like everyone to know about her, Monica’s answer is telling of not only how she is doing, but who she is today. Her statement was, “Everyone should know I’m doing fine.”