PORTLAND — Eight floors above the ground, the huge windows of Randall Children’s Hospital flood Marta Nunez’s spacious room with the gray light of a rainy Portland afternoon.
It spills over the balloons, the giant get-well card from her friends at the River Center church, and the poster-sized collage she made herself while working with her clinical art therapist, Katie Dunn.
The collage is covered with pictures cut from magazines: sports cars, people bicycling, a long-legged model in a flowing dress. “I will walk!” it proclaims, in flowing, felt-pen script. “I will dance! I will do everything!”
The Lebanon girl, who turns 18 next month, is determined to make those words come true.
She knows she has a spinal cord injury that affects her thoracic nerves at the point of her spine her doctors call T-5. She knows at the moment, she can feel nothing from a few inches above her waist down to her toes.
She knows for some people, that damage is permanent.
She also believes in miracles, and in a life well lived regardless of the circumstances.
“I’m not going to let this let me go down,” she says, dark eyes filled with quiet confidence. “I know this is not the only thing I have in my life, and it’s not the worst thing. And I know God has my back.”
Marta understands how she came to be at the Legacy Emanuel hospital branch almost three months ago, but she has no actual memory of the crash.
It was July 31, and she remembers going to a job at a blueberry field that afternoon in the Dever-Conner area with her mother, aunt and her mother’s boyfriend.
The cab of the Ford pickup didn’t have room for all four people, so Marta climbed in the back, which was covered by a canopy. Her mother’s boyfriend headed down Dever-Conner Road toward the Interstate 5 southbound on-ramp. Police said afterward the Ford turned in front of a Dodge pickup headed west, which struck the vehicle.
“The only thing I remember is waking up each time and then crying and passing out and then waking up in the hospital,” she says. “I woke up, I saw people crying. I started crying. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t move.”
Vague memories of an ambulance ride and an MRI at Salem Hospital. On Aug. 14, Marta was transferred to Randall Children’s Hospital and began coming to terms with her injuries.
“They say I won’t have any feeling in my body from the chest down,” she says simply. “But I still have faith I will walk again. Right now, it’s just the beginning of it.”
It’s so early in Marta’s healing process that the broken left clavicle she also suffered in the wreck hasn’t completely healed. Until it does, she can’t put the full weight of her body on her arms to lift herself from her bed or her wheelchair.
She’s moving temporarily to Providence Child Care Center until the bone is strong enough for her to receive more therapy. Then it will be back to Randall for a couple of weeks of training on how to be as independent as possible.
Completed just two years ago, the Randall Children’s Hospital building at Legacy Emanuel is the only inpatient pediatric rehabilitation and development program in the state. It can serve 165 children ages birth to 18.
Pedal-powered cars in crayon-bright colors turn the halls into miniature expressways each morning. The walls glow with shadowbox-style nightlights in the shapes of woodland animals, a different one for each floor. In addition to art therapists, recreational therapists take children who are able to leave the hospital on outings to the zoo or local shopping centers.
Still, Marta longs to go home. “I miss being close with my brothers and sisters,” she says. “I miss hanging out with my friends.”
“But it’s going to be different now.”
A new home
Born in California, Marta moved with her mother and seven younger siblings to Oregon not quite five years ago. The family lived first in Albany, where Marta attended South Albany High School, before coming to Lebanon earlier this year.
Until recently, “home” was a small manufactured home she shared with her family, which expanded eight months ago to include an aunt and a cousin. But it was tiny and crowded, accessible only by front steps, and not particularly wheelchair-friendly inside.
Mylene Robinson of Family Tree Relief Nursery, a Linn County family support program based in Albany, has been working closely with Marta’s mother to find new quarters.
Recently, an anonymous donor from the River Center stepped up with an offer for use of a five-bedroom house with a bedroom on the first floor. The Nunez family qualifies for federally subsidized Section 8 housing, so Section 8 inspections must be completed before members can move in, but Robinson said it’s a “thumbs-up” so far.
Next on the list: finding materials and labor to build a wheelchair ramp. Also, the Nunez family van may or may not be able to be used to transport Marta and her chair, so transportation will be another challenge.
Marta is covered by the Oregon Health Plan, so insurance will take care of her hospital treatment, said Kristin Mason, Randall pediatric social worker. The problem for most families who suffer an unexpected injury is the sheer weight of the unexpected costs: travel, gas, post-care furnishings and accommodations.
Some of those have already hit hard. On this particular Wednesday, Marta’s mother, Amparo Nunez Mendoza — a full-time homemaker — had hoped to be in Portland with her daughter. But the family van is in the shop and a ride north did not materialize in time.
Marta’s aunt, Alma Villa, was able to find a ride of her own and spend the day with her niece. Through hospital translator Lubianka Godoy, she spoke warmly of the online class Marta is completing through the Lebanon Community School District’s Beyond LHS program. The support is why the family wants to stay in Lebanon, Villa said.
Just one credit short of her diploma, Marta is working on a Spanish program with hospital teacher Julia Stead. She grew up speaking Spanish, she says, but adds: “My whole life, my mom only told me how to speak. I never had to write and read.”
She plans to continue with her studies, with an eye to someday having her own business as an event planner. “I want to go to college and be successful and have my own career,” she says.
She has other things to learn in the meantime.
The binder that wraps her body under her teal green blouse supports her back and stomach and keeps her blood pressure up and promotes circulation, Amy Merrill, the physical therapist, reminds the teen. Pressure socks do the same for her legs.
“Because you can’t use all these muscles any more, your blood just goes ‘blurp’ and falls down,” Merrill explains, whooshing her hands toward Marta’s feet.
Even with the equipment, Marta has to remember to do things for herself. Every hour, she must lie down or shift her body or otherwise lift herself to relieve gravity’s constant pressure on her hips and rear. Merrill and occupational therapist Autumn Servera help her press on a scale with her left arm to show her what 20 pounds of pressure feels like, the limit she can exert until her clavicle is fully healed.
When she is home, she’ll need to learn to navigate her new surroundings — and the life that will, at least for now, be her new reality.
She is ready for it, she says, “knowing that day by day, God is there for me, and he has always been there.
“This is not the end,” she adds. “This is something new. And I can go through it.”