A young girl’s life was turned upside down when she received a life-altering diagnosis at just 19 years old. But, six brain surgeries and a stroke weren’t keeping her from achieving her dream — no matter how impossible.
Claudia Martinez began suffering severe headaches and the loss of feeling in her hands and feet when she was attending college at the University of Houston. The 19-year-old student also started blacking out, along with all of the other debilitating symptoms. When she went to the doctor, however, her bad news only got worse.
Claudia was given a devastating diagnosis. She had Chiari Malformation, a debilitating condition involving a structural problem at the base of the skull. It allows brain tissue called the cerebrum, which controls balance, to extend into the spinal cord and can cause paralysis.
“Chiari malformation occurs when part of your skull is either too small or doesn’t develop correctly. Because of this, the brain in the back of the head can extend down into the spinal canal,” explained Michael Smith, MD, chief medical director for WebMD. The severity of the condition varies. While some people with mild cases won’t have any symptoms, others aren’t so lucky.
“In more severe cases, the pressure that the back of the brain puts on the spinal cord and the brain stem — which controls many of our bodily functions like swallowing and breathing and heart rate — can lead to severe neurological complications,” Dr. Smith furthered. With Claudia experiencing troubling symptoms, it was obvious her case was more severe.
Claudia’s First Surgery:
With her new diagnosis, Claudia was given some alarming advice. “When I got my diagnosis, I was sent to a neurosurgeon,” Claudia recalled. “He told me that I needed brain surgery as soon as possible. If not, I was going to be paralyzed from the neck down. And so within a week, I was undergoing my first brain surgery.”
During the operation, surgeons worked to improve her severe symptoms and stop her condition from doing more damage, but things didn’t quite go as planned. “I thought I’d have one surgery. I knew my life would be a little different, but I thought I would have this surgery and go on to med school. And that would kind of be the end of my story. But it’s been quite the opposite of that,” Claudia admitted.
Five More Brain Surgeries & A Stroke:
Sadly, the college student, who had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, would require five more major surgeries following her first. “Since I was first diagnosed, I’ve had six major brain surgeries,” Claudia said. And, the operations on her brain were far from the only challenges she faced with her health.
After her sixth brain surgery, Claudia Martinez suffered a stroke that had devastating effects on her health. “Initially, I couldn’t function from the neck down,” Claudia recalled. She had survived, but the stroke had left her paralyzed and unable to care for herself or even eat.
The Road To Recovery:
Claudia had to relearn how to do “every single thing we take for granted in everyday life,” such as putting on clothes, feeding herself, and using the bathroom. She even required a feeding tube. “I had to relearn how to do absolutely everything,” Claudia said. “My mom had to shower me, dress me.”
Her recovery was gradual and required months of physical therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehab Hospital. After several months, she learned how to walk again using an Exoskeleton. One can only imagine the mental fortitude needed to remain positive in such circumstances, but Claudia Martinez had an abundance of courage.
Claudia Was Unstoppable:
Through it all, Claudia was undeterred from achieving her dreams. Not even six brain surgeries and a stroke were going to stop her. In fact, it only reinforced her vision for her future. “Hardships are often blessings in disguise,” Claudia said. “I thank God every day for what I’ve gone through,” she added. “It is how I’ve found my calling.”
In a display of undeniable determination, Claudia never stopped pursuing the one thing she always wanted to do. She kept going to school, even in a wheelchair and with a feeding tube — and she succeeded. “I’ve officially decided to pursue a residency in PM&R (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation),” Claudia declared, announcing her residency to become a doctor.
Claudia Achieves Her Dream:
Despite her condition, Claudia Martinez successfully graduated from college and went on to attend UTHealth McGovern Medical School in Houston — all while she continued to require additional brain surgeries, as well as multiple other operations, and suffered a stroke that left her temporarily unable to function from the neck down.
Just seven years after her initial surgery, she entered her final year of med school, on track to graduate the following year and become a doctor. But, that’s not all she’s done. Each year, Claudia Martinez also organizes the annual “Conquer Chiari” charitable walk, which has helped raise $55,000 for research into the condition.
Claudia Hopes She Can Be An Inspiration:
“I want people to know there is hope,” Claudia Martinez wrote on Conquer Chiari’s website. “There [were] times I thought I wasn’t going to make it; times I thought, ‘If this is how I am going to live then I am in full acceptance of death.’ But no matter how bad the situation seems, you have to always believe that things will get better.”
Claudia had more than just hope and a belief that things would somehow “get better,” though. She displayed a strength that should serve as an inspiration to us all. Life had dealt her multiple blows — debilitating symptoms, a devastating diagnosis, 6 brain surgeries, a stroke, and being forced to learn to walk again, to name a few. If that couldn’t stop her, nothing should stop any of us from pursuing our dreams.