Student’s road to graduation littered with dozens of surgeries
(pictured above: Cruz Santibanez received her degree Sunday.)
When Cruz Santibanez woke up in UNC’s surgical intensive care unit on July 4, 2008, she’d cleared the first hurdle – she was alive.
The next thing on her list: getting back to class.
The vibrant 17-year-old had suffered a catastrophic burn while grilling corn with her mother at a Smithfield flea market, sending her into a weeks-long coma and leaving her incapacitated. She would need to undergo – and survive – countless surgeries, retrain her body to move and eat and read, and endure the kind of pain she can still find no words to describe. Over and over in the four months she’d spend at N.C. Children’s Hospital and the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center, Santibanez would exceed her doctors’ expectations. And, her own.
Typically, she’d cared more about friends and clothes than classes. That was about to change.
“I needed to get out of there, because I needed to get to school,” said Santibanez. “This was my mom’s biggest dream, to see her kids be somebody.”
Sunday, Mother’s Day, Santibanez made her mom proud by becoming the first person in her family to graduate from a four-year college. She earned a degree in journalism and plans to become a news anchor. Her parents, two sisters and two brothers will be with her in Kenan Stadium, and another brother, Jose, will join from Mexico via Skype.
Santibanez had once wanted to go into the medical field like Jose, who was a registered nurse. But that path shifted in February 2008 when a family tragedy left Jose and their father wounded, and a cousin dead. Both her dad and Jose were arrested, and Jose would eventually go to jail for the voluntary manslaughter of their cousin.
“The reporters and local news were everywhere, but no one ever interviewed my brother. They interviewed people who weren’t even at the scene, and they were airing that information as fact,” said Santibanez.
She didn’t know anything about newsgathering or storytelling, and she felt helpless watching the story unfold with so many missing pieces. She paid close attention to the news and sat by her father’s side in the hospital, fielding inaccuracies over the phone.
Just three months later, Santibanez would impulsively reach to turn on the grill for her mother, tragedy striking the family again. That September, Santibanez left the hospital and returned to Union High School, her clothes pressing painfully on the gauze and compression sleeves that protected her broken skin. The school encouraged her to take a semester off. She said no.
Though her fingertips were too raw to properly type her papers, she wanted more than anything to graduate.
“Everything I didn’t want to do before, I wanted to do, and as soon as I could,” she said. “My old life was gone, and I wanted to be somebody better.”
After high-school graduation, Santibanez obtained an associate degree online, juggling school at home and surgeries in Chapel Hill. The operations were exhausting and left her susceptible to infection.
Her surgeon, Dr. Charles Hultman, asked what she’d want to do next, and she told him she’d thought of being a journalist. Hultman called his friend Richard Cole, a professor and a former dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“They wanted to see if I could transfer to Carolina. I thought, ‘there’s no way,’” said Santibanez.
Santibanez applied to Carolina and was accepted. Soon after, she learned she qualified for the Carolina Covenant, which grants eligible low-income Carolina students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. She has made the most of her UNC experience, working as an intern at UNC News Services, volunteering for the student newscast Carolina Week and spending a day shadowing Robin Roberts at ABC’s Good Morning America.
“The school work hasn’t always been easy, but she did it, and she worked and had to undergo surgeries at the same time,” said Cole. “Her internal drive and determination really pushes her forward, and I admire that.”
When Santibanez joined Carolina Week as a reporter last semester, she was on camera for the first time.
“It was the best feeling, just overwhelming, to finally be up there,’’ she said. “This is where my passion is. I want to know everything there is to know about it, and I want to do it forever.”
After more than 30 surgeries, Santibanez will have another later this month, her last for a while. After recovering at home, she’ll hit the job market. She’s already had some interest, and she’s not afraid of what comes next.