Psyched to Cycle: Itzel Rodriguez vs. Spina Bifida

The Texas Story Project.

The wheels of the bike spun faster and faster down the brightly-lit corridor, riding gracefully on the cold and impeccably clean floor. The set of wheels on the IV stand spun quickly as well, keeping in time with the man who gripped the stand tightly as he ran down the hallway after the bike. This was “the bumblebee bike” recalled Itzel, chuckling to herself about a decade and a half later, “I named everything”.

Riding a bike for the first time down the hallway of the Christus Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, TX, with her father Major Humberto Rodriguez running after her holding her IV stand, Itzel was a changed girl in the sense that she now had the freedom to do as she pleased without having to seek permission from physicians or be constrained by her physical limitations, all thanks to Texan ingenuity.

Patricia Itzel Rodriguez, born in San Diego, California on October 29, 1998 with spina bifida and eight missing ribs, underwent her first of twenty-nine operations at a just a few months old to correct her spine, protect her internal organs, and save her from the possibility of paralysis. Throughout her childhood, Itzel and her family were in and out of the hospital as more and more surgeries were needed to correct her spine and ribs. After her organs were protected, Itzel still suffered from a severe spinal curvature that forced her to walk at a 120 degree angle, with one side of her body measuring 12 inches from hip to armpit and the other side measuring just 2 inches. Itzel, a toddler, was a long way off from being to able to ride the bumblebee bike or walk normally, and the curvature and missing ribs also posed risks to her health. “She would have very weak health, she would be getting infections, pneumonia…” Mrs. Rodriguez explained, trailing off as she imagined all of the possibilities.

Meanwhile in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Robert M. Campbell, Jr. and Dr. Melvin Smith were performing life-changing operations on children from all over the nation who had joined a rib implant program at the Christus Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital in conjunction with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Although the Vertical Expandable Prosthetic Titanium Rib (VEPTR), invented by Dr. Campbell in 1987, had not yet been approved by the FDA, 300 children were in the program to receive the implant and treatment from the two physicians. The VEPTR was so highly sought after because it is a prosthetic rib that can be expanded to allow room for the child’s natural growth through minimal incisions, reducing recovery periods from over a month for replacements to merely 1-3 days. Dr. Smith and Dr. Campbell, to quote Itzel’s mother Patricia Rodriguez, “came [to San Antonio] because they found the hospital would support the research and experimentation” whereas other hospitals and institutions declined to give them a chance. “The Texas hospital was the one who was able to support their idea,” Mrs. Rodriguez said with a smile, “Texas had the doctors and the invention that changed my daughter’s life. If it hadn’t been for two Texas doctors, Itzel wouldn’t have this life”.

Mrs. Rodriguez was certainly right about that as, after the Rodriguez family met Dr. Campbell and Dr. Smith at an orthopedic surgery conference in San Diego, they decided to fly with Itzel to San Antonio so that she could receive the implant of the VEPTR rod in an emergency operation as Case 156. Although the family was apprehensive about the surgery, Itzel pointed out that “it was a necessary risk” to save her life. I asked Itzel and her mother about the impact that the surgery had on Itzel’s life. “Itzel learned to ride a bike for the first time in the halls of the hospital after the implantation of the rod because she was not able to ride a bike because of the curvature,” Mrs. Rodriguez recalled. Itzel declared that the highlight of the beneficial surgery for her was “when I was three years old after I got the implantation and I could first walk” normally. Mrs. Rodriguez agreed, although she admitted that “when Itzel got that surgery and started walking and riding a bike so straight and doing things that she could never do before it was a big blessing but I missed my girl because I felt like I was hugging a different body.” Itzel’s life had been completely altered, and the changes would only increase from there.

When the Rodriguez family returned to California, the rib became infected and Itzel suffered from a fever and pain for 10 months in a San Diego hospital. Mrs. Rodriguez became emotional as she remembered the hardship Itzel went through in that time, “She was there 4 years old asking mom for help,” but there was nothing the Rodriguez family could do to ease her pain. The doctors in San Diego did not have the knowledge needed for Itzel’s particular situation, their solution to her pain being “Oh, it was an infection, I’m going to give you this cream or this antibiotic.” “They were not helpful,” Itzel concluded. The family packed their bags and flew in to San Antonio again, where Dr. Smith treated Itzel’s open wound from the infection and replaced the rib. Dr. Smith promised Itzel that the wound would heal in 21 days, and it did just that. The Rodriguez family and the physicians knew that Itzel was in danger of more infection, and travelling between California and Texas for rib expansions would be risky business. And besides, Itzel had always dreamed of a two-story house. Major Rodriguez “didn’t hesitate to drop his main job as a pilot because he wanted to do it for Itzel,” Mrs. Rodriguez explained, saying that the family moved to San Antonio within six weeks.

Upon her arrival in Texas, Mrs. Rodriguez knew it was meant to be, “When we got to Texas and we felt like a little town… big city, little town it felt like home, right away felt like home.” She quipped, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as soon as I could!” How did this sudden move affect little Itzel? “I honestly didn’t even know why we were moving to Texas… I was pretty clueless, I admit.” However, being closer to the doctors made a world of difference and allowed the Rodriguez family to form a close relationship with the Campbells and the Smiths, the two physicians offering not only medical support for Itzel, but also guidance and friendship. “They really went out of their ways to make the patients feel like part of their lives,” Mrs. Rodriguez added to emphasize the point, “that doctor was there in Build-a-Bear,” celebrating Itzel’s birthday with the family. Itzel, too, was a source of guidance even in the most trying of times. For others going through the same journey as she was, Itzel made a video for children in the hospital to give them confidence and was an inspiration to her neighbor, Emily, who had the same condition. “It was a big relief for the parents and the daughters to see how well Itzel has done.” For her family, Itzel was a symbol of resilience and perseverance in difficult times as they relied heavily on their faith and Itzel to stay strong during all of Itzel’s complications and surgeries. “If it was not for the greatness and the courage and the resilience and her attitude I don’t know where I would be. She helped me so much,” Mrs. Rodriguez said proudly of Itzel. “She never showed pain and she has been so strong.”

Today, Itzel is 2 years out of her last surgery, which was the removal of the titanium rib that brought the Rodriguez family to San Antonio. Ironically, Itzel herself was removed from San Antonio as she is an undergraduate ocean engineering major at Texas A&M University in College Station. Itzel is witty, kind, creative, brimming with sarcasm and mischief, and was able to play tennis and join the marching band in grade school and now holds office in the Ocean Engineers Society on campus. Itzel’s younger sister, Arelle, is also an engineering major at Texas A&M, having remained by her sister’s side from the beginning. Although “Arelle was just a baby when Itzel was very sick [and] couldn’t understand why we were paying so much attention to Itzel” she has remained a loyal member of her incredible family and has not allowed past experiences to affect her. Major and Mrs. Rodriguez proudly hold their positions as their loving parents, with Mrs. Rodriguez stating that “we put them first and I don’t regret it. I don’t regret being a mother before a wife or a sister or a daughter because she needed me”, and that “I would go through it all again just to see Itzel the way she is right now.” The Rodriguezes are a Texan family, close-knit and symbolic of the advancements, values, and hopeful spirit of the state. “It was the best decision of our lives to come to Texas. We are very blessed that God put Itzel and us in these doctors’ paths because if it wasn’t for them and the mercy of God, Itzel wouldn’t have the life she has right now.” Mrs. Rodriguez said as her closing remarks, “Texas is home”.

Jade Evenstad is a second-year biology major minoring in history and chemistry at St. Mary’s University. She met Itzel her junior year of high school and has been friends with Itzel for over four years now, always ready to marvel at Itzel’s creativity and quick wit. Jade feels lucky to have Itzel and the Rodriguez family’s influence in her life and is proud to share Itzel’s remarkable story of strength and Texan progress in science with the world. To quote Itzel: “You’re welcome, America.”

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