Written by Randee Cerota
The youngest of three girls growing up in the Dominican Republic, Maria Torres had a relatively typical childhood, attending public school since age three and meeting all developmental milestones on time. But at age twelve, Maria’s life took a drastic turn when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor called a glioma. After undergoing brain surgery, Maria suffered a stroke that resulted in a traumatic brain injury (TBI). She developed hydrocephalus and fell into a coma.
A month later, Maria woke up paralyzed and nonverbal, and to this day is completely dependent on aides and devices for all activities of daily living (ADLs). She struggles with cognition, memory, and information processing, among many other challenges. And although she demonstrates intellectual and cognitive potential to learn and excel, Maria’s rate of progress is dictated by her physical health and well-being.
Maria received in-home therapy in the Dominican Republic for three years before her loving and committed family relocated to the United States to pursue special education programming. She is currently enrolled as a student at the International Academy of Hope (iHOPE) in New York, where she is receiving specialized services that help to further her intellectual and cognitive potential. iHOPE is an amazing organization that serves children, adolescents, and young adults who have acquired brain injuries and who cannot be served in their local school systems. Five days a week, Maria receives an hour each of physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech/language therapy.
I visited iHOPE last month and had the pleasure of meeting Maria, who is now a cheerful, lovely 19-year-old. I was immediately captivated by her spirit. Though Maria is still nonverbal, she communicates using an eye-tracking enabled Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device, so after a warm greeting, Maria (with the help of her aide) led me on a tour of the iHOPE facility. As we walked the halls, which are lined with artwork created by the students, I was introduced to a few of Maria’s peers, as well as a number of her teachers and therapists. I visited many of the classrooms, witnessing firsthand the personalized care and attention that each student receives.
As our tour continued, Maria took me to see her new Rifton Large Supine Stander that Holton’s Heroes was able to purchase through our supporters’ generous donations. She is currently working with her therapists to gain the strength needed to use her new therapy device at home. Daily use of the Stander will help facilitate Maria’s muscle development, maintain her range of motion, and encourage better functioning of her body’s internal systems. Not to mention, simply being in a standing position gives Maria a viewpoint she’s not had in quite some time.
The final stop of the tour was the Speech Room, where we took some pictures together (check out Maria's heart-melting smile in this photo), and Maria presented me with a very thoughtful gift and a card that read, “I am very excited! Good. Thank You. I like that. I’m happy.”
So, Maria, on behalf of Holton’s Heroes and our many supporters, I want to send lots of love and encouragement your way. We are very excited, too! And we’re so happy we could provide some help to you and your family.
Randee Cerota has served as a Holton’s Heroes Board Member since 2015. She’s also a senior director of brand partnerships for POPSUGAR and an amazing human with an incredibly contagious laugh.