Long Island City, NY–Vada Vasquez, a LaGuardia Community College freshman, always knew that nothing would stop her from attending college and earning a fine arts degree. Not even a stray bullet to her head that nearly killed her.
The accident occurred on November 16, 2009, when the 15-year-old sophomore from Bronx Latin High School was walking home from school and found herself in the crossfire of a gang fight. A bullet entered and exited her head, shattering her skull and part of her brain.
She was rushed to Lincoln Hospital, where doctors performed surgery to remove bullet fragments from the part of the brain that affects speech and motor skills. When she awoke from a coma after a week and a half, her doctors feared that she would be paralyzed on her left side. She proved them wrong when she was soon able to walk on her own.
However, her ability to speak and write was severely impaired, and she had to endure a long and arduous rehabilitation process, which began at Mt. Sinai Hospital. “I had to relearn everything,” said Vada, who does not display any problem with speech, though she admitted she occasionally stumbles on a word or two. “One time the doctor pointed to my elbow and asked me what it was, and I said, ‘a toe.’”
“She did not know her own name,” said her mother, Gemma Vasquez, who Vada described as ‘beyond her best friend.’ “She was like a child in kindergarten.”
To make sure that Vada kept up with her school work, a teacher worked with her in the hospital two hours each day.
During the most difficult time of her recovery, Vada said that art and music helped get through it. Once she regained the dexterity in her hands, she began to draw, paint and sculpt again. “After my accident I couldn’t draw, which truly hurt me,” said Vada. “I remember talking to the doctor and telling him if I had to make the choice between losing my ability to talk or my ability to use my hands, I would choose to be mute.”
And although she had lost the ability to remember the names of simple objects, she had not forgotten the notes and chords that she once played on her guitar. “With art and music,” she said, “I could block out everything and just create.”
After a month at Mt. Sinai, Vada was discharged and continued her rehabilitation at Harlem Hospital as an out patient. Her mother took an eight-month leave of absence from work to take her daughter to therapy every day.
After being out of school for eight months, Leticia Pineiro the principal of Bronx Latin, allowed Vada to attend classes with her friends for two to three hours each day. “I pushed through everything because I wanted to graduate with my friends,” she said.
Wearing a helmet to protect her soft skull, Vada was back at school. Still having difficulty with her speech, Vada’s friends would encourage her to answer questions that the teacher posed to her. “Through all this my friends were very supportive,” she said.
By her senior year, she had reconstructive surgery on her skull and was now able to begin putting together simple sentences. And in June 2012 graduated with her class. At the ceremony, Ms. Pineiro presented her with the Perseverance Award.
On September 10, Vada will begin college classes with some 3,000 incoming freshmen. The fine arts major said that LaGuardia is the perfect place for her because of its “great” fine arts program and class offerings. “I am really excited about starting class,” said Vada, who plans to attend the School of Visual Arts after graduating from LaGuardia to pursue a career as a fine artist or a graphic designer.
Reflecting upon the last three years, Vada said, “It was a setback that still bothers me, but I am not a person that gives up.” “And if I want to go far in life, nothing is going to stop me.”
• • • •
LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.