Never mind the 3-year-old girl with the shock of dark locks can’t walk, talk or keep her head steady.
“Because of her we are different people; we are very much a family. Estefania has brought good to us,” says 31-year-old Irma Rodriguez while cradling Estefania on her lap and keeping her head from lolling about.
A small dribble of saliva glistens on the little girl’s chin and her eyes are turned up but for her mother, a brief moment of eye contact is cause for a bright smile.
The small woman with the curly dark hair sits in a cozy and cheerfully appointed living room. The walls are painted in happy hues and the rest of the small Eagle-Vail apartment is spotless as if Irma Rodriguez has all day to clean.
She doesn’t though – far from it.
Ever since Estefania’s delivery via an emergency cesarian section nearly four years ago, Irma Rodriguez and her husband, Leopoldo, haven’t had a quiet moment to themselves. Even Estefania’s 5-year-old sister, Valeria, who was barely a toddler at the time of Estefania’s birth, knew things would be different.
“She looked so small and sad,” says her mother. “I felt really bad for her. She never complained, but she had to grow up fast.”
Estefania was born at the Vail Medical Center on Jan. 24, 1999, with severe damage to more than half of her brain. What should have been a joyous moment after an uneventful, close-to-full-term pregnancy turned into a time of shock over a new reality. While Irma recovered from surgery in Vail, Estefania was air-lifted to Denver’s Children’s Hospital for immediate treatment. The family was split apart in two separate places – a precursor of how things would be from now on.
Doctors didn’t sugar-coat the severity of challenges Estefania and her family would face, but Irma Rodriguez knew just looking at her newborn daughter.
“She was blue in the face,” Irma Rodriguez remembers of the traumatic delivery that followed her discovery that the baby inside of her had stopped moving. “I told my husband that she couldn’t be right in the head without air for so long.”
Estefania’s umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck during the night, and the resulting asphyxia contributed to a catalogue of mental and physical disabilities, ranging from cerebral palsy to frequent seizures to her inability to digest solid foods.
Barring a medical miracle, Estefania will never walk or talk. She will never be able to take care of herself and her mental development is limited to the most basic functions.
But she can smile and she has moods and preferences. Her mother says Estefania only lets her father bathe her. When she feels sad or wants to be cuddled she looks for her mother. If she is inconsolable, she can only be calmed by her sister talking to her.
On this snowy afternoon, Estefania is feeling cuddly. She burbles contently, as her mother makes clacking noises at her. She even lets her mother put her down for a nap – though sleep doesn’t come easy to Estefania.
For the first year of her life, Estefania was in pain because of problems with her digestive system. She cried often. Actually, she cried all the time.
“I felt so frustrated for her. I told the doctors “Please help my baby,’ but they could do nothing for her,” Irma Rodriguez says, her hands fluttering now that she isn’t holding Estefania. Born in Mexico, Irma Rodriguez speaks with vehemence, substituting gestures for words that temporarily elude her. She is relentless in her search for eye contact. Her smile never wavers nor do her hands get much rest.
But her eyes seem a bit darker when she recalls something especially sad – like the quality of Estefania’s cries during her first year in life.
“She sounded so desperate, so hurt, so much in pain. I would cry with her because I couldn’t help her.”
Despite constant sleep deprivation and worries over Estefania’s mounting medical bills, the Rodriguez family has remained strong. Even in their darkest hours they’ve had hope – and most of all faith.
As practicing Catholics, the family have been members of the St. Clare Assisi congregation in Edwards for years. Valeria is a student at the church’s private kindergarten. Irma and Leopoldo take turns going to church on Sundays. One staying home with Estefania, who is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Sunday mass.
It was through the church’s pastor about two years ago that Irma met New New Wallace. An Edwards resident and mother of two, Wallace is one of those people who seem to have more energy than she can expend. A part-time fitness instructor, she is loved and feared by her students.
“I’m relentless,” the 43-year-old with the piercing blue eyes says with a laugh. Being active in church and the community is just one of those things, Wallace does – along with a million other things.
Meeting Irma Rodriguez, Wallace says, has been a gift for her.
“My problem is that I have no problems,” she says. “That’s something you sometimes lose sight of until you meet someone like Irma.”
Wallace says she admires Irma Rodriguez’s strength and determination. Her quiet dignity and her unconditional love for her children and her husband.
“It’s people like Irma that make me want to continue doing what I do,” Wallace says.
Doing what she does isn’t always fun. Wallace is a member of the board of directors of the Vail Valley Charitable Foundation, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with medical emergencies. She says she sometimes dreads the board’s monthly meetings, when individuals cases are reviewed.
“It’s brutal,” she says. “You want to help everyone, but often we can’t because the money isn’t there.”
Determined to make the monthly meetings easier, Wallace has made a name for herself as a tireless fund-raiser.
“I think big and I’m not shy to ask for more,” she says.
In the case of Estefania Rodriguez, Wallace managed to convince a donor who wants to remain anonymous to give $10,000.
Irma Rodriguez says she is grateful beyond a simple “thank you.”
“It meant so much to us,” she says. “I couldn’t believe someone would help us like this. I pray for my daughter and I pray for this man. He has helped us a lot.”
Most of the donation has been used up for medical expenses, as well as experimental treatments. For the past two years, Estefania and her mother have traveled to Naples, Fla., where Estefania undergoes sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. The chamber simulates an altitude below sea level to deliver a high dose of oxygen to the subject. People who have brain damage because of a lack of oxygen appear to benefit from the treatment.
Estefania seems calmer and sleeps better following the treatments, says her mother.
When asked what she wishes for her daughter, Irma Rodriguez is the realist she claims to be.
“I want her to be happy. I want her to not have pain,” she says. “I don’t spend too much time thinking about the future.”
Angels come in all shapes and sizes, Wallace says.
“It’s the Irmas of this world that make you appreciate the little things,” she says.
And it’s individuals like Estefania who bring out the angelic side in us, she adds.
The people who have contributed throughout the years to the charitable fund are giving wings to those in need.
“There is an angle in anyone who gives to help,” Wallace says, adding that her biggest wish this Christmas season is for the charitable fund to receive a sizeable contribution for an endowment.
“It’s heart-wrenching when we have to say “no,’ because the money isn’t there.”
To learn more about the Vail Charitable Fund, visit http://www.vvcf.net or call 328-FUND.
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at email@example.com.