Once Halted by Coma, Theresa de Vera Now Lives at Full Speed

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, Published July 30, 2015

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http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/once-halted-coma-theresa-de-vera-now-lives-full-speed-n392746?hootPostID=0a5e226d70709239546e734748bf7d92

In the spring of 1996, 20-year-old Theresa de Vera was one year and one month away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University when her plans came to a screeching halt.

The day her life changed began with so much promise.

That morning, De Vera packed her bags for a spring break with her family in Eagle Rock. She spent the day with her loved ones, enjoying the lumpia and pancit noodles – two of her favorite Filipino dishes – her mother had prepared for her. That evening, she slipped into her favorite red flannel pajamas – a Christmas gift from her brother – and prepared to go to sleep.

But something was wrong. De Vera suddenly had difficulty breathing. She took a few puffs from her inhaler and woke up her parents who immediately sensed that it wasn’t just an ordinary asthma attack their daughter had typically suffered since the age of 10.

“My mom said, ‘Theresa, you don’t look too good,'” de Vera recalled. “‘Let’s bring you to the hospital.'”

De Vera has very little memory of what happened next. Her mother frantically drove to a nearby hospital. Doctors said de Vera had suffered a severe asthma attack that left her in a coma, and pronounced her clinically dead.

Image: Headshot of Theresa de Vera.
Theresa de Vera today. Herb West / Courtesy Theresa de Vera

Her parents, devastated, refused to accept the diagnosis. They held fast to the idea that their daughter could wake up at any given moment, greeting them with a smile.

Weeks of waiting turned to months. Relatives and friends descended on the Glendale Adventist Medical Center, to support de Vera’s family.

“They tried to keep hope when all hope seemed lost,” de Vera said. “But had it not been for my mom fighting the doctors, I would not be here today.”

Three months later, de Vera woke up – shocking doctors who had dismissed signs of life as involuntary movements. Once awake, she could finally share with family members the horror of being in a coma.

“If you are ever in a coma, the last thing to go is the hearing. When they [doctors] were discussing harvesting my organs, I grasped my brother’s hand really tight as a tear ran down my face, from what my family has said,” she said.

De Vera says she remembers feeling her father’s presence in the ICU. She wanted to reach out and hug him, she says, but felt imprisoned by her body, incapable of moving.

“One thing I do remember was when I gradually woke up from the coma, my dad gave me a kiss on the forehead,” de Vera said, “and I just wanted to say, ‘I’m awake, Dad. Look at me.'”

One day alter, at 4:30 a.m., her mother entered de Vera’s room and was immediately shocked. The daughter lying before her was gradually coming back to life.

Image: Theresa de Vera surfs for the first time with Life Rolls On.
Theresa de Vera surfs for the first time with Life Rolls On. Courtesy Theresa de Vera

“My mom said she would not have traded that one experience for anything in the world,” said de Vera.

She officially came out of the coma late June. Nearly a month later, on Independence Day on 1996, doctors removed her tracheotomy tube, letting her breathe independently.

“July 4th was when they [doctors] removed my tube allowing me to breathe on my own for the very first time. So every Independence Day has a new meaning,” said De Vera.

Today, de Vera relies on a wheelchair for mobility. Her recovery has been slow. Once-simple tasks had to be relearned – everything from speaking to picking up objects.

“I used to be a professional chopstick twirling person, now I have to eat sushi with a fork. I can’t do chopsticks anymore,” de Vera chuckled.

At the same time, de Vera’s near-death experience has transformed her outlook on life. Today, she says, she firmly believes that miracles really do happen, and that she is living proof.

“Here I was at 5 percent chance of survival. And here I am 19 years later,” de Vera said. “I think I’ve done more since my disability happened than I probably would have forty years able-bodied.”

Image: Theresa de Vera with her therapists at Cal State University.
Theresa de Vera with her therapists at Cal State University. Courtesy Theresa de Vera
“Why God? Why me?”

De Vera was born and raised Catholic – the daughter of Filipino American parents who immigrated to San Francisco in 1969. Her father, now 82, was born in the Philippines countryside in Ilocos Norte, and her mother was born and raised in Manila. The family moved in with de Vera’s grandparents, eager to secure jobs to support each other, with the hopes of obtaining the fabled American Dream.

“My parents migrated from the Philippines in 1969 with two suitcases, a rice cooker, and $200,” de Vera wrote on her official website.

Image: Theresa de Vera on her first trip to Disneyland.
Theresa de Vera on her first trip to Disneyland. Courtesy Theresa de Vera

After flipping through a handful of newspapers, de Vera’s father — who had been a professor in the Philippines – circled a promising job opportunity and moved the family to Los Angeles where he worked as an air conditioning contractor, while his wife worked as an accountant.

In 1984, de Vera’s father opened his own heating and air conditioning company which became known as Don Glenn Heating And Air Conditioning — one of the largest air conditioning and heating companies in northeast L.A. that serviced Catholic churches in the area.

Image: Theresa de Vera with her father.
Theresa de Vera with her father. Courtesy Theresa de Vera

Since childhood, de Vera has never missed a Sunday at Saint Dominic’s Church in her close-knit community of Eagle Rock. But at the time of her incident, and as she struggled to recover from her coma, she also struggled with her belief.

“The first time I lost faith was when the doctors told me afterwards, ‘I won’t be able to do this. I won’t be able to do that. They kept repeating the word ‘won’t.’…I kept asking, ‘Why God, why me?'” said de Vera. “I was depressed, I didn’t know what to do. I went back to church, headed to work, headed to class, not really socializing.”

“As years went by, I came to the conclusion that blaming God wouldn’t help my situation, but trusting him would.”

The constant disbelief from doctors and others, many of whom believed she’d be in an immobile state for the rest of her life only further fueled de Vera’s determination to disprove the naysayers.

“That’s when my faith grew stronger. I told god to help me, help me get through it.”

Image: Theresa de Vera surfs for the first time with Life Rolls On.
Theresa de Vera surfs for the first time with Life Rolls On. “six12 media” / Courtesy Theresa de Vera

De Vera pushed on with physical therapy sessions. This past Easter, she made the walk – with the help of a walker – through Saint Dominic’s mass.

The church, she recalls, was filled with anticipation as she began her trek across the hall. All eyes were fixated on her. Nervous about falling, de Vera closed her eyes and put her faith in God. Before she knew it, she says, she was standing on the opposite end of the church.

“Some people wiped their tears. I guess it was my way of saying thank you, and for never losing hope in me,” said de Vera. “I wanted to show the parish that had prayed and still continues to pray for me that I am getting better, I am getting there, and that slowly but surely, I will get there with God’s grace.”

“I found my voice.”

Over the years, de Vera has taken on work with nonprofits empowering the disabled community in L.A. and trying to amplify the Filipino American voice. In 2005, then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed her to serve on the L.A. City Commission on Disability.

“I’ve noticed that there’s no viable voice over in city hall for the disabled population,” de Vera said. “I found my voice and began speaking up for other people.”

(L-R) Ruby (Theresa's mom), Theresa de Vera, Former Secretary Daisy Bonilla, and Councilman Jose Huizar.
(L-R) Ruby (Theresa’s mom), Theresa de Vera, Former Secretary Daisy Bonilla, and Councilman Jose Huizar. Courtesy Theresa de Vera

De Vera was recently reappointed to the commission by Mayor Eric Garcetti. In her decades with the city, she has pushed for reform and new policies on infrastructure, transportation, and addressing the concerns of the disabled.

She helped to push for the installation of different Access stands at LAX – the third busiest international airport in the U.S. – to make it easier for drivers to know exactly when and where to pick up a rider. She has also worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to reform special education in addition to fighting cuts to social security and in-home support services.

De Vera shows her support at a celebration for the 25th Anniversary of the ADA.
De Vera shows her support at a celebration for the 25th Anniversary of the ADA. Courtesy Theresa de Vera

De Vera herself has used Access Services throughout her career at Loyola Marymount University, where she not only returned to see the bachelor’s degree cut short years earlier, but for a master’s degree in theology with an emphasis on bioethics.

Those kinds of transportation services, she says, are crucial to empowering America’s disabled.

“It gave me my life back,” de Vera said. “It gave me independence and dignity, and I am so grateful that such a service exists.”

In 2014, de Vera was crowned Ms. Wheelchair California through the Ms. Wheelchair California Foundation. Since then, she has remained a strong advocate for disability rights, sharing her story and struggles at speaking events, and inspiring others with disabilities.

Image: Theresa de Vera poses for a head shot after being crowned Ms. Wheelchair.
Theresa de Vera poses for a head shot after being crowned Ms. Wheelchair. Herb West / Courtesy Theresa de Vera

These days, de Vera is attending the Special Olympics World Summer Games, debuting in Los Angeles July 25 to August 2. De Vera wants to ensure that venues are accessible for all and that emergency personnel will be ready when needed.

In addition to celebrating her newfound independence, de Vera is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act which ensures equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

“Disability is not an inability. We can live a normal life just like any able-bodied person,” de Vera said. “I went back to school although I was in a wheelchair. I wish that society would open their eyes and look beyond the disability or the chair, and embrace the person for who they are and what they have to offer.”

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‘Only the Oaks Remain’: One Woman’s Fight to Preserve Her Heritage

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, Published July 2, 2015NancyOdaisSeenHereOnRightWithHerTwoOlderSistersMasakoandSayuriHerMomandDadInEastLosAngelesAfterWorldWarIIIPhotoCourtesyNancyOda

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/protecting-oaks-japanese-american-internment-camps-n384451

During a hot summer day in the Valley, volunteers at Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi Hall serve fresh sashimi to seniors at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center in Pacoima, California.

Since 1959, the Center has worked to preserve the dreams of Japanese Americans who returned to the San Fernando Valley after World War II. Many had hoped for a community center that would save their stories for generations to come.

“They had a dream of coming to this country and raising their families, and then they were disrupted by the war where they struggled through that and survived. This center represents their spirit,” Nancy Oda, former president of the Center, told NBC News.

The Center was built with the help of $150,000 raised by Japanese American farmers and the North Hollywood Farmer’s Association entire treasury. For nearly 10 years before the construction of the Center, many Japanese Americans lived in trailer camps in Sun Valley in the San Fernando Valley.

Members of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center Nancy Oda

“Older people lived in trailer camps after the war, and because of social conditions in the camp, the elders were concerned about juvenile delinquency,” said Oda.

At a time when mistrust ran high, the Center offered a safe place where Japanese Americans could work towards rebuilding their lives through education and community programs.

“They had a hard time breaking into jobs,” said Oda. “But education was more important than material things.”

“I BELIEVE THAT MY WORK NOW IS TO PRESERVE WHAT THE ELDERS HAVE DONE.”

56 years later, despite a few financial setbacks, the Center is as busy as it’s ever been. Senior hot meals are served twice a week by long-time members of the Center, along with a range of activities like ballroom dancing, Mahjong games, Japanese calligraphy, and judo. Many of the regulars spend time in the gymnasium where they embrace the sounds of the taiko drum and the ukulele. Over the past few decades, the Center established two senior citizen facilities – one of which was sold in 2012.

“All these elderly people at the center, they feel safe. They don’t have the guard towers. They don’t have the searchlights. They play Mahjong, ukulele, and you can see lots of energy. They can live a full life,” said Oda.

Her family – along with other families that settled in the San Fernando Valley – have had a long history and connection to the Center’s roots. Her parents and older sisters were interned at Tule Lake Segregation Camp in 1943. Her children grew up at the Center and were heavily involved in judo, basketball, and various other activities. They later passed the tradition onto Oda’s grandchildren.

“This community center is very important to me and I believe that my work now is to preserve what the elders have done. In camp, they learned about sticking together,” said Oda.

The Oda Family Story

Oda’s family were survivors of the internment that interrupted the lives of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast, forcing them to leave behind homes, businesses, and lives they’d built over years for incarceration behind fences and armed guards. After Executive Order 9066 was signed, hundreds of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry –two-thirds of whom were American citizens — were placed in relocation centers.

Oda, now 70, was born in the internment camp in Tule Lake, one of 10 largest camps on the West Coast known for its high security guard towers, and 12-foot barbed wires used to detain “enemy aliens.” The Tule Lake Segregation Center interned approximately 18,000 men, women, and children.

Nancy Oda with her sisters, mother, and father. Nancy Oda

Within 48 hours of being notified, the Oda family was forced to close down the Hilltop Market, their grocery store business in East Los Angeles. They sold new equipment they had purchased for their store for little money in exchange. Oda’s father also left behind a house he had purchased in 1930 and transferred it to the custody of trusted customers from his grocery store.

Before leaving, Oda’s father locked many philosophical books that provided him comfort and strength in the basement of his home. “He put a lot of his precious things in the basement,” Oda recalled, “whereas a lot of people burned their Japanese memorabilia.”

Oda’s father rounded up the family, went to Lancaster to gather the rest of the family, and reported back at a relocation camp in Poston, Arizona, where he was a judo instructor.

HE FELT THAT WRITING – THE PEN – WAS HIS ONLY WAY OF CONTRIBUTING TO SOCIETY. BY MAKING A RECORD OF THE EVENTS WAS HIS CONTRIBUTION.

Sports and judo were always a big part of the Oda family’s life. Inside the camp, judo provided Oda’s father with a sense of solace and leadership while helping others stay active while confined.

“My father has been a judo man all his life. He established a judo dojo there and eventually the U.S. published a survey to draft more soldiers because they needed more personnel,” said Oda.

Nancy Oda’s father poses in his judo outfit. Nancy Oda

Oda’s father – Tatsuo Ryusei Inouye – was born in the U.S., and raised in Japan. He was considered a “no-no”boy after answering “no” to questions 27 and 28 in the infamous loyalty questionnaire.

“He had a very big decision to make because the question asked, ‘would he be loyal to the U.S. and serve in the Army?’ He said no,” said Oda. Her father, she says, felt compelled to answer “no,” because his brothers were still living in Japan. Answering “yes” would put him at war with his own family.

The family was later transferred from Poston, Arizona to Tule Lake in 1942, where Oda’s father was imprisoned in a double fence compound or a “prison within a prison” at the camp, under tight watch and security as one of the highest ranking judo officers.

Every morning at Tule Lake, a camp officer would require detainees to line up in groups and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Oda says her mother struggled to participate, spending each day feeling like a prisoner in her own country.

“My mother would cry when they would do the Pledge of Allegiance with soldiers with armed guards. It was very hard for her to even tell us it was that hard,” she said.

From the stories her mother and two older sisters told her, many Japanese Americans interned at Tule Lake would use their time to reflect, meditate, create, and write, in an effort to maintain what was left of their dignity and faith at a time when the U.S. government and the public viewed them as suspicious and disloyal.

“Japanese people are very philosophical. They would perceive a searchlight as the moon beam under which they could meditate. They would get a carrot and carve a little Buddha for Buddha’s birthday,” said Oda.

One of the artifacts Oda’s father brought back from the camp was a Shinto shrine that has been in the Oda family for decades.

“When they came back home with me, I was just a baby. We really treasured it as a family because it’s a sign of faith and hope,” said Oda.

“I’VE LOVED TEACHING BECAUSE THAT’S KIND OF THE KERNEL OF MY BEING – TO TEACH, ESPECIALLY OUR CULTURE.”

The family eased back into life outside the camp. By day, Oda’s father was a gardener in Monterey Park, California and by night, he would teach judo in East Los Angeles.

But lingering prejudice against Japanese Americans was pervasive, and rebuilding their lives wasn’t easy. “People had more prejudice after the war than before the war,” said Oda.

Though her father didn’t openly discuss his internment experiences, he kept a diary in camp that revealed his anger and frustration. The diary is currently being translated by a Fulbright scholar from Japan.

“He felt that writing – the pen – was his only way of contributing to society. By making a record of the events was his contribution,” said Oda.

Unlike Oda’s older sisters who had been very traumatized by the experience in camp, Oda had a childhood that was very different – one that consisted of birthday parties, piano lessons, and a full education.

Growing up, Oda was raised in East L.A., attended a private school for Japanese-American children, and eventually went on to attend Garfield High School where she met her husband (NAME) — a star basketball player. He attended UC Riverside on a scholarship and later went on to coach basketball at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center for the next 40 years.

Oda went on to receive her undergraduate degree from UCLA where she studied East Asian studies and became an educator for the next 35 years. Along the way, she also picked up her master’s degree at Cal State L.A. and taught students in Title I schools in Sylmar, where she found herself to be one of the few Asian-American administrators.

“I’ve loved teaching because that’s kind of the kernel of my being – to teach, especially our culture.”

Nancy Oda and her high school sweetheart who became her husband, on their wedding day. Nancy Oda
“Only the Oaks Remain”

These days, Oda has been busy finalizing plans for a travel exhibit memorializing Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Tujunga, through her leadership with the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition. The exhibit will move forward with a $102,190 grant from the National Parks Service Japanese American Confinement Sites that was announced June 18.

The former detention station – which is currently the site of a golf course – is located 10 miles from the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center. The former detention station originally served as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp site that was later transformed into a detention center for Japanese Americans investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice.

But over the years, the site’s history has been erased from the public’s memory. Oda wants to change that.

Nancy Oda standing at a podium — exercising her activist rights and passion for Japanese American history. Nancy Oda

The grant, sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, will help bring the stories from the Tuna Canyon Detention Station to the forefront through a traveling exhibit titled, “Only the Oaks Remain.” The exhibit will feature more than 50 photographs that were taken by Tuna Canyon officer Merrill Scott, in addition to newspapers, and other archival documents.

“These photos will show what Tuna Canyon looked like and reveal what life was like inside the camp,” according to a statement from the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center.

On June 25, 2013, the city of Los Angeles officially recognized Tuna Canyon Detention Center as a historic cultural monument. After World War II, the site went through various transformations. It became an L.A. County probation school for boys and is now a golf course.

Oda’s goal is to grow the traveling exhibit and make sure the history of the sites along the West Coast are not forgotten. The main monument will be located under a grove of oak and sycamore trees.

For now, Oda hopes the travel exhibit will initially be booked at the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown L.A., and is on the lookout for other venues. She is also confident that the Tuna Canyon Detention Station will be recognized as a national historic site in the near future.

But time, she says, is of the essence. “We’re losing momentum so to speak, because they [elders] are dying off. So to collect these stories, we’re running out of time,” said Oda. “By the time this is built up, I’ll be 80 years old. So I have to think I am training the next generation. I’m going to set the stage.”

Nancy Oda and her family. Nancy Oda