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The Summit of My Life: My Independence

By Alma Almanza, Central Coast Center for Independent Living

When I was six years old I had already planned my future. I wanted to be studious and disciplined like my uncle Sergio and have the strength and faith of my grandma so that I could be successful in life. I also wanted to get a degree to help my family.
As the oldest of seven siblings I always had a lot of responsibilities. This made me into a responsible person and helped me focus on my goals. When I turned 16 my father took my family to live in the United States. I only had two years to learn English and finish high school if I wanted to study medicine in the United States. The last semester of high school I found out I had a large malformation of the arteries in the third vertebrae of my spinal cord.   They were going to operate on me to correct the problem but if they weren't successful I would have quadriplegia. If they didn't operate on me I could experience an embolism that might put me into a coma or kill me.
In April 1977 I opted for surgery because I wasn't prepared to lose the battle without giving it a good fight. Fortunately the surgery only had minor effects on my body. My neurosurgeon avoided quadriplegia but he did not completely eradicate the dangerous malformation. I would have to have a second surgery to completely remove the malformation.

In September 1977 after three months of rehabilitation I left for the university to complete my dream of studying medicine. At the end of the first semester at school my neurosurgeon suggested I change my major. He told me most likely I would not be able to practice medicine. So I switched my major to psychology and in 1983 I completed my degree.

I was 30 years old in 1989 when I decided to undergo the second major surgery. My neurosurgeon warned me that I only had a one percent chance of surviving the surgery. I wanted to live so I took the risk. Days after my surgery I realized I was in intensive care, tied, to a ventilator and other medical equipment.  I expected all of it with the exception of the ventilator. It was tough for me to accept that I had to depend on a ventilator to breathe. My voice was reduced to almost a whisper and I could barely communicate with the nurses.
A month after my operation I was transferred to a rehabilitation center to strengthen my respiratory system with the goal of breathing without the ventilator. After five months of arduous respiratory, physical and occupational therapy I was able to breathe on my own.
I moved back into my parent's house since I was only able to move my head and because I depended on my mother to feed me. I became very depressed and I wondered it would have been better to simply lose my mental faculties.
Then I discovered the Center for Independent Living where I learned the philosophy of independent living and making your own decisions. I remembered the strength and faith that my grandmother had and at the end of 1993 I decided to move in with my sister. She lived in a city where there would be more options for me.  In May 1994 I began to work at the Central Coast Center for Independent Living where I advocate on behalf of people with disabilities.
The experience has not been easy. When I was in intensive therapy I thought it would have been better to die. But my faith and love for life were stronger and I won the battle. I enjoy my work and I am very involved in my community. I work to get more people with disabilities involved in their communities.
I have a good life, with a family and people around me who love me and who respect my decisions. I have made many decisions and have made my share of mistakes but I have learned that whether I make a good decision or bad decision, it is my decision. I feel I've arrived to the summit of my life. I am independent.