FAIRFIELD — Lina Ruelas is going to have a normal Thanksgiving dinner with her daughter Isabel this year.
That’s in part due to this mother’s determination, her daughter’s will to live and to a community that reached out and offered a hand after hearing their compelling story.
Ruelas and her daughter have been through plenty of difficulties in the 10 short years she’s been alive. Just three years ago, Isabel was in the intensive care unit facing a death sentence.
Isabel was diagnosed at 4 with a rare but serious condition known as myasthenia gravis. Her mother brought Isabel to the emergency room several times after the young girl would choke on air, turn blue and gray and pass out. After years of struggles, both with the disease and doctors, the disease was in remission.
Two years later, doctors found a small granuloma – a nodule – and told Ruelas they’d remove it through routine laser surgery. Ruelas, a cautious mother, agreed to leave her daughter’s side only while doctors operated.
She left the hospital briefly, but returned to a nightmare. The nurses and doctors cried in hysteria, looking for Ruelas. After what Isabel had already been through, Ruelas thought she could handle anything they told her.
“They said Isabel caught on fire,” Ruelas said.
The laser that doctors used for surgery blew up an existing air tube inside Isabel’s throat, causing her entire airway to catch on fire. They immediately doused her, which caused hypothermia.
Her doctor, Joanne Farmer, knew Isabel, knew what she’d been through and what she survived. But that day, Farmer cried hysterically.
“I grabbed her and told her to calm down,” Ruelas said.
The doctors performed emergency surgery on Isabel and found horrible burns inside. They later told Ruelas her daughter had 24 hours to live.
Ruelas had heard it all before.
“With all this (stuff) you’ve told me . . . she wouldn’t be here now,” she said.
Isabel was put on heavy medication to treat the pain, but after dealing with constant pain and medication for so many years, she simply woke up. Though she couldn’t talk, Isabel used sign language to her mother, asking what happened.
As Ruelas recounted what happened next, she pause, held her head low and cried.
“I said, ‘Will you promise not to leave me?’ ” she said. “She said ‘OK.’ ”
Isabel fell back asleep but never left her mother, as she promised. Though doctors insisted she wouldn’t live past two weeks, she did. And though they determined that she would never talk again, she did.
“Doctors were shocked,” Ruelas said. “They called her the miracle starfish.”
This incident was hardly the first for Isabel. She has been on her deathbed many times before and was even struck by a drunken driver. She recently sat by her mother, combing her hair, laughing and giggling with her brother Julian. The only evidence of her harrowing story was a small scar on throat.
Her mother’s story was no less difficult: No matter what doctors told her, she wouldn’t give up on her daughter.
When Isabel started getting sick, doctors and nurses accused Ruelas of being a hypochondriac. She faced adversity and skepticism after visiting several doctors. She finally got the help she needed from California Pacific Medical Center neurologist Robert Miller.
“I kept calling him and kept getting hung up on,” Ruelas said. “He’s this ritzy doctor and I’m just this little Chicana girl.”
Miller worked closely with Ruelas to ensure her daughter got the care and attention she needed. Because Isabel’s condition was so rare and so severe, Ruelas had to learn exactly what to do in case her airway closed up, and how to change her tubes and dressing.
Isabel spent several years in and out of the hospital and her mother, concerned for her daughter’s care, never left her side.
The costs of health care eventually wore on the Ruelas family as they lost their house, apartment and car. Her husband and four other children lived in Suisun City with their grandparents while Ruelas stayed with Isabel.
Isabel’s health was worth it to the family, however.
“Her hard work being sick paid off,” Ruelas said. “She had not been punished.”
Isabel’s story inspired people to write medical articles on her and inspired Ruelas to go back to school to earn a medical degree.
This past year, however, she received tragic health news again, this time from her husband: He was diagnosed with late stage testicular cancer. After intensive radiation therapy, he was left immobile from the waist down. Now Ruelas takes care of him and three of her children.
Life remains a daily struggle. Ruelas said she gets by with what she can on welfare, food stamps and Social Security but said it’s a struggle month to month to put food on the table.
“It took awhile for me not to be embarrassed,” she said. “But it’s for my kids.”
Money grows tighter during the holiday season, but Ruelas found help through Mission Solano’s food box outreach. Each year the organization fills hundreds of boxes with Thanksgiving and Christmas foods. For families such as the Ruelases that barely make it to the end of the month, the food has been a blessing.
“Food stamps don’t help out during the holidays,” Ruelas said. “If it wasn’t for this, my kids wouldn’t have a Christmas.”
Ruelas said she continues to face judgement and adversity when she pulls out food stamps or collects food donations, but she never lets it get her down.
“You don’t know my story, don’t judge me,” she said. “This is what a parent does. This is what a wife does.”
Many families depend on Mission Solano’s food boxes during the holidays, according to the organization. This year, Mission Solano said there’s a food shortage and help from the community is needed.
Donors are asked to bring boxed stuffing and cake mixes, cans of corn, beans, green vegetables, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce, bags of rice and marshmallows, boxed desserts and frozen turkeys and ham. Donations can be dropped off from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day through Monday at Mission Solano’s Community Outreach Center at 740 Travis Blvd. Frozen turkeys and hams can be dropped off anytime at the same location.
Mission Solano also needs volunteers to help cook, serve and clean up during the Thanksgiving box distribution and on Thanksgiving Day.
For more information, visit www.missionsolano.org or call 422-1011. All proceeds will provide care services to poor and homeless men, women and children in Solano County.
Reach Heather Ah San at 427-6977 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/HeatherMalia.