Risa Garcia perches on a desk while Tooele High School students practice sign language around her. Her jeans-clad legs jiggle slightly. She’s a young woman with the drive to go the distance, both on the track and in her life.
It is this drive, and a little help from her friends, that pulled her up from a low point in her life. The day, March 12, 2004, “I’ll never forget that day,” she says.
“It’s the day I almost quite coaching,” says Kendra Reed, Tooele High School girls’ track coach.
Risa started the day in a great mood. A 17-year old junior, she had won a spot to compete at the Hurricane Invitational, a prestigious competition between top high school track students throughout the state.
She climbed on the bus with 11 other girls and 12 boys enroute to the competition. Also on board were Reed, the boys track coach Randy Quarez affectionately called “CQ” by the students, Coach Gary Lund, and bus driver, Verl Coates.
Garcia said track is something of a family tradition. Her grandfather, Harvard Hatton, was a runner at Brigham Young University where his skills earned him a scholarship to the school. While at BYU he set a record that stood for some 23 years, according to family legend.
Garcia’s father, Rudy, also has a passion for physical fitness. He has been a member of the Marine Corps and is currently a member of the Army National Guard serving with the 116th Engineers. He volunteered to go to Iraq and worked hard to fit the physical criteria necessary to begin his tour of duty in February of 2004. Risa’s mother, Rita, a substitute bus driver, and her four younger brothers, Rudy, Greg, Eric and Cody had prepared themselves for a year without him as he served his country.
The Hurricane Invitational was realization of a goal for Risa, who joined the track team in her freshman year. “I’ve always been hyper,” she says, and running was a good fit for her high energy. She was planning to run “the usual” 1 mile, 2 mile, 800 meter and throw javelin, during the event.
The first sign of trouble came in Delta when the bus stopped for a bathroom break. Risa noticed her back was sore. But she figured it was from sitting too long and did some stretching exercise to work out the kinks. The pain was getting worse, along with a headache, she says, “but I tried not to show it.”
She asked her seat-mate for some pain medicine and opened the window in hope the fresh air would help the nausea she was beginning to feel. The boys at the back of the bus complained about the cold, and when her coaches learned she was sick, they made her move up to the front.
Risa and Reed began to understand there was something seriously wrong in Meadow, Utah. The younger girl asked the bus to pull over so she could vomit, then she discovered she couldn’t move her legs. By this time her headache had become almost more than she could bear.
The adults thought Risa had meningitis and knew they needed to get help soon. But “there’s no cell service in Meadow,” Reed said. Coaches and the bus driver tried to get help on their phones and on the bus radio, but they were unable to reach anyone.
The group decided to get Risa back in the bus and try to reach help as soon as possible. Once they were back on Interstate-15, the bus radios began working again. As luck would have it, the first person they contacted was Risa’s mother, who was substituting for Coates, the driver of the track team bus.
The team was close to Hurricane, so they checked into the motel and “CQ” and Pete Poulson, a friend of the team, carried Risa into her room. She asked them to let her take a warm bath in hopes the water would relax her muscles. The left her on the toilet, but when she tried to take off her clothes, she slid down off seat and had to yell for help.
Once in bed, she asked for a priesthood blessing, as is the custom in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “CQ,” Lund and Coates honored her request before taking her to the new Hurricane insta-care facility across the street from the teams’ motel.
Here doctors ran some tests. “I know there was something desperately wrong when they took a needle this long” Reed says, indicating a three inch length with her thumb and forefinger, “and sticking it in her foot and she didn’t feel it.”
An ambulance was called to take her to St. George, where they checked into the newly built Dixie Valley Medical Center where the needle test was performed again.
“I baffled the doctors,” Risa said. “I was perfectly healthy; I just couldn’t move my legs.”
A specialist was called in and he ordered a CAT scan and an MRI. The diagnosis — there was a tumor on the teenagers’ spine and she would probably never walk again.
“I lost it.” Reed said.
The decision was made to AirVac her to Salt Lake City for immediate surgery.
“They wanted me in the room when they told her,” Reed said.
“I could tell coach had been crying because her mascara was smeared,” Risa said.
After breaking the news, Risa wanted to know if it was a permanent condition, and if she would be able to move her arms. She was told she probably wouldn’t walk again. But the surgery would probably stop progression of the paralysis, to which she replied. “Good, then I can still play my instruments.”
Risa has been a musician longer than she has been a runner. She started playing clarinet in sixth grade and graduated to baritone. She also plays valve trombone, has played oboe and plans to learn the flute.
Reed called Risa’s mother, who was near Cove Fort on I-15 headed to St. George. After being told her daughter was being flown to LDS hospital, Rita Garcia turned around and drove back to Salt Lake City so fast she was there to greet her daughter when she arrived at the hospital.
Risa and her mother were told the doctors would drill through the younger girl’s vertebrae to remove the tumor. After the tumor was removed, Risa would be given chemotherapy. However, when they opened Risa up, they discovered the mass was a large blood clot, not a tumor as they had believed.
They were able to drain the clot without drilling through Risa’s spine. But as the clot had been sitting on spinal nerves, the doctors still feared Risa would not regain use of her legs.
As the anesthesia wore off, Risa began setting goals. Her first goal was to walk on stage for the Tooele High School Jazz Band Drum Line Assembly in April.
Soon after she was taken off the respirator, Risa discovered she could wiggle the toes on her right foot. “The left foot took longer, she says.
She started by learning how to dress herself, comb her hair and brush her teeth. It didn’t take her long to put on her pants and shirt, but it was several days before she could put on her own shoes and tie the laces.
The physical therapists and occupational therapists challenged her to see how long she could stand upright. They had her prepare brownies and macaroni and cheese, to build her endurance. “I was so happy when I could stand for 30 or 40 minutes,” she says.
Meanwhile, Risa’s mother was trying desperately to contact her father in Iraq. She contacted the Red Cross, and on the Sunday after the surgery she e-mailed Rudy Garcia with the message “call me now.” When she finally contacted him she discovered the Red Cross had not told him anything, so she had to break the news of Risa’s ailment over the phone. The Red Cross arranged for Rudy Garcia to come home for three weeks leave. He was there when Risa was released from the hospital, two weeks after her surgery.
Risa was told by her doctors that the progress made in two weeks was on par with what is expected for most people to do in a year.
“I am a really determined person, a big over achiever,” she says.
“Plus I had help from the man upstairs. It wasn’t all me.”
Risa’s surgery took place two weeks before the end of third term and school officials agreed to freeze her grades. She started back to school shortly after fourth term started. At first she attended part-time, picking up half of her classes on one day and the rest of them on the next day. She was able to pass the history advance placement test, but missed passing English advanced placement. She also took LDS seminary classes through home study.
Risa started back to school with canes to help her walk. But “I went to school without canes one day and I didn’t tell Mom. I wanted to see if I could do it.”
On April 1, the day of the Jazz Band Drum Line, she walked onto the stage. “It wasn’t pretty,” Coach Reed says. “but she did it.”
“A lot of people were clapping” as she her spot. “It was awesome.”
Risa’s next goal was to attend a band trip in California, Marilyn Syra, the band teacher, told Risa she would still go on the trip, even if they had to take her in a wheelchair. But Risa had other ideas.
The band attended a competition in Anaheim, Calif. where they faced groups from Canada, California, Washington and Utah.
In between visits to the beach and Universal Studios, Risa played baritone in the concert band comSpirit petition and valve trombone with the Jazz Band. No trip to Anaheim is complete without a visit to Disneyland and Adventureland. Risa said she had a great time on the rides like the “Tower of Terror.” But it was also a personal victory because she was able to walk around the park all day without using a wheelchair.
With the carelessness of youth, Risa admits there were some rides she should have avoided, but didn’t. She still had back pain and was taking pain medicine two to three times a day. But she wasn’t going to let a little pain get in the way of her good time. ‘Some rides had signs saying if you have had a recent back injury you shouldn’t go on this ride,” she said. “But I thought, ‘It’s been two months, I’m alright’.”
Risa was not able run in Spring 2004, but her team awarded her a plaque for “Inspirational Efforts to the Tooele Track and Field” for her inspiring example.
“When (Coach Reed) first handed it over I started to bawl.” Risa said of the award.
Risa continued to improve through the summer, marching with the Tooele High School band in several parades, including the five-mile Days of ‘47 Parade in Salt Lake City.
But when she thought about running cross-country track in the fall she discovered “just running around the block was all I could handle.”
She saw “CQ” during the Fourth of July Parade, and he encouraged her to come out and run. A week later she joined the team in conditioning for cross country running.
“I was slow at first, and it was kind of frustrating,” she says.
But the team mates and coaches were very encouraging. The team ran a weekly course in Settlement Canyon. Before her surgery Risa’s personal record was 21.45, but in the fall of 2004 she was thrilled when she was finally able to run the same distance in under 30 minutes.
By September when the team traveled to a meet in Idaho Falls, Idaho, she was running well enough to be on the varsity team again. She placed second on the team and 26th overall at that event. In October she attended regionals and had shaved her post-surgery personal record down to 22.56.
She also continued with her band activities, participating in the fall Band Camp and the October field show. She has performs on-stage and “in the pit” for Tooele High School drama and the Benson Grist Mill Pageant. And as a level two American Sign Language student she is teaching elementary students how to “sing” in sign language.
Kindergarten students in Bobbie Coulter’s kindergarten class are learning how to sign Rubber Ducky, while fourth grade students at Middle Canyon are learning Don’t Laugh at Me by Mark Willis.
And still she runs.
Risa is now in spring training, working to build her endurance. Her next goal is running in the Hurricane Invitational in March. “ ‘CQ’ and I have a running joke that he’s going to get me there, even if he has to hire an ambulance to follow the bus down,” she says.
She’s aiming to get her speed down to her personal best, “or better.”
Risa still has some minor problems. She sometimes loses her balance, and her back still hurts. The only psychological scar is a need to ride in the front seat of the bus when the team goes on long trips. She doesn’t dwell on the past; she has too much to do in the future. After graduation Risa says she will attend the University of Utah majoring in music and minoring in either coaching or American Sign Language. She also hopes to be in the University of Utah marching band.
Her long-range goal is to be accepted with the Marine Corps Band. “I read a booklet about it and they do awesome things,” she says.
Band members stay physically fit by running 2-3 miles a day and they get to travel all over the world.
While March 12, 2004, could have been the end of her dreams, for Risa it was just another obstacle to overcome in her quest to go the distance.