When Victor Guerra graduated from Sunnyside High School on Tuesday night with his twin sister Felicia, the 18-year-olds crossed the stage at Save Mart Center together – Victor in his wheelchair, and Felicia walking beside him.
And that’s just how they planned it. “We’re twins,” he said. “We have to be close.”
The plan was nearly two years in the making, said Victor. And it almost didn’t happen.
The moment was special in many ways, partly because Victor, who has spinal muscular atrophy, had to get permission to leave the pediatric intensive care unit at Valley Children’s Hospital to be a part of the graduation.
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He was diagnosed with the genetic disease that affects voluntary muscle movement when he was 2 1/2 years old. Nerve cells stop receiving signals and then begin to deteriorate from lack of movement. Victor has type 2, which is the second severest form. He also has scoliosis and asthma.
The twins initially attended different high schools, but Felicia transferred to Sunnyside her junior year so she could walk with her brother across the stage at Tuesday’s commencement.
We’re twins. We have to be close.
Victor Guerra, who graduated with his sister Felicia at Sunnyside High
People with muscular atrophy often suffer from chest infections because chest muscles are also affected. So when Victor was admitted into the pediatric intensive care unit two weeks ago with pneumonia, it nearly wiped out his chance to get his diploma alongside his classmates – and his twin.
Hospital staff worked hard to wean him off the pneumonia treatment before graduation, said Valley Children’s public information officer Sareen Creede, but time was not on their side. Nurse Pam I’Anson said he had asked for extra treatment so he would make it to his graduation. “His mom was crying and she told me, ‘I just want him to walk with his twin sister.’ ”
“I was bummed,” Victor said after learning he might not make it to his graduation, “but things happen.”
That’s when his mother, Mona Esparza, asked if there was anything that could be done so both her kids could participate in graduation.
Sunnyside Principal Tim Liles offered to record the graduation and personally deliver Victor’s diploma to him in the hospital, Creede said, but she knew that wasn’t good enough. “There’s nothing exciting about that,” she said. “We knew he wanted to be there.”
And with that, a team was formed to make Victor’s dream come true. “We wanted to do this for him and his family,” said Creede.
I’Anson first heard only a few weeks ago about Victor wanting to graduate. “We started the process right away, asking directors and doctors,” she said. “I knew we had to get this kid to his graduation.”
We wanted to do this for him and his family.
Valley Children’s Hospital spokeswoman Sareen Creede
First, pediatric intensivists readied Victor to temporarily leave the hospital. He carried an oxygen tank attached to his wheelchair and the nurses kept a constant eye on him throughout the ceremony, documenting his condition every 30 minutes.
American Ambulance provided the ambulance that would carry the twins, two nurses and a respiratory therapist to Save Mart Center.
The ambulance was able to pull up close to the entrance, thanks to arrangements made by Fresno Unified and Save Mart Center, said Creede.
Victor said he was happy that his sister was willing to change schools so they could graduate together, but it’s no surprise given how the two stick by each other. “She helps me with everything,” he said. “Homework, school, everything.”
Next up on Victor’s agenda is attending Fresno City College in the fall, then transferring to Fresno State to study either business, medicine or psychology.
Victor is grateful that their plan came together, and that his sister was able to be there with him. “I was excited,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be possible.”