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