Sometimes it is hard to believe in the innate goodness of humanity. Fortunately, there are those people on this planet who radiate goodness with such profound and humble purity they restore your faith. Maria Del Carmen Romero Aviña is one of those people. A Chapala native who met and married the love of her life, Jose, at the tender age of 15, Maria faced unimaginable hardships as the young mom of a special needs son. She met these challenges with fierce determination, tenacious resourcefulness and, most of all, love. The many medical interventions her son, Juan, required led Maria to a career in nursing, but this path was more of a steep, boulder-strewn, densely forested mountain trail than the road more traveled.
Juan Jose Vazquez Romero, affectionately known as Juanito, was born March 1st, 1990. Soon after his birth, he was diagnosed with a severe form of cerebral palsy. Juanito would never walk or talk and needed 24-hour care. He was prone to seizures and was prescribed expensive anti-convulsive medication in addition to a host of other medications and therapies. He could also light up a room with his smile and melt the most callous heart. He loved bright colored toys and the company of his family.
The early years for Jose and Maria were financially tough. To save money, they lived in a crumbling brick and cement structure with a cardboard roof that barely qualified as a house. One year, the scorpions were so abundant they had to tack blankets to the ceiling to keep the baby safe. Jose worked hard only to see most of his income funneled into medical care for his son. Maria’s full-time job was the care of Juanito, but she sold fruit, churritos, and shave ice in front of her house to contribute to her family’s income. In addition to almost endless medical appointments, Juanito had therapy four times a week, two days in Chapala at the D.I.F. and two days in La Floresta. Sometimes scraping up the 10 pesos that the D.I.F. charged was a challenge. To this day, Maria is grateful to her American angel, Wanda, for driving her to the La Floresta therapies, thus saving her both the bus fare and the physical burden of carrying her son.
Maria’s first foray into the nursing world came in the mid-1990s when the mayor’s office offered a small course in Tepehua teaching basic nursing skills, like how to wrap a bandage and how to give injections. At first, Maria’s interest in nursing lay only in being able to competently administer her son’s medications. A caring person to her core, a career in medical care simmered on some forgotten back burner for the next two decades. In the meantime, Maria’s parents and most of her siblings moved to the United States, where she herself had spent half of her childhood, and decided to stay North. Jose and Maria’s growing family, which would eventually include three daughters, moved into Maria’s parents’ house. Though the accommodations were better, the challenges remained.
In 2001, the unthinkable happened; Juanito passed away. Despite the strength of her faith and the sure knowledge that she will see her son again in heaven, no mother survives the death of a child without deep anguish. Maria surely found strength in the love of her husband, the laughter of her surviving children, the beauty of nature, and her trust in God. But I think it is the fighter in her, the woman who defended and protected her son against all odds that got her through this dark time. As poet Caitlin Seida wrote about hope,
“It’s what thrives in the discards
And survives in the ugliest parts of our world,
Able to find a way to go on
When nothing else can even find a way in.”
Hope, faith, and perseverance are not for the weak of heart. Maria has all three in spades and a fierce heart that can contain them.
It was this spirit that served Maria well when the opportunity to enter the nursing profession presented itself some years later when she worked at an Ajijic bed and breakfast. One of the usual tenants there was a plastic surgeon named Dr. Benjamin Villaran. On occasion, some of his patients would stay at the B&B to recover from their surgeries. Dr. Villaran enlisted Maria to assist him in their care and in doing so ignited the spark of her desire to become a nurse. Nursing school was prohibitively expensive. There was, however, a free course offered by Donna Hall that taught general nursing skills and geriatric care. Maria enrolled immediately and spent every Saturday for the next year learning new skills and volunteering at local nursing homes, all while keeping her full-time job and raising her three daughters.
This training sufficed for a time, but Maria wanted to further her career with a more formal degree. She entered La Escuela de la Ribera de Doctores to become a certified nurse. The two-year program came with a 7,500 peso per year price tag. Maria worked extra hours to come up with the tuition. Buying the expensive textbooks was out of the question, so she photocopied chapters from her classmates’ books when finances allowed. She finished her program with honors and now works in the medical field in the office of an ophthalmologist. She also provides in-home care as the opportunity arises.
Maria admitted that her dream is to open a nursing home but sees this as a near impossible goal. When Maria talks about patient care, her eyes light up and her passion for her profession fairly oozes out of her pores. When discussing her volunteer time at nursing homes, she teared up a bit recalling those patients who never had visitors. She envisions a place where human dignity is valued over profit, and senior patients are treated with the love and respect they deserve as elders.
Every year on his birthday the family visits Juanito’s gravesite to bring him a healthy slice of cake. This year Maria’s granddaughter insisted they bring an even bigger piece than usual in case Juanito was extra hungry. This concern that a little girl has for the uncle she never met epitomizes the goodness that defines Maria and her family too. It is my scrappy hope that Maria does one day open that nursing home, and that she names it after her inspiration: Juanito’s.
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