Norwalk – At this time of joy and gratitude, one local family is giving thanks for gifts many take for granted: a supportive community, the generosity of strangers, and most importantly, the health of their child after coming close to losing her to a rare and complicated disorder.
When 16-year-old Sarah Martinez started feeling ill last May, her doctor prescribed antibiotics to relieve her sinus pressure. But the pain continued – and panic attacks, vertigo, and focal seizures ensued. Sarah’s parents knew this was more than just a routine infection, but medical tests revealed nothing, leading one doctor to even ask the otherwise healthy teenager, “Why are you pretending?”
She wasn’t. Once she was referred to Yale New Haven Hospital and underwent additional exams, a diagnosis finally confirmed a very real condition. Sarah had developed Opsoclonus-Myoclonus Syndrome with Benign Ovarian Teratoma, an illness known to afflict only 22 other people worldwide.
Despite the removal of a fist-sized tumor and her entire right ovary, Sarah’s ordeal continued though she doesn’t remember much of it. “It was like a dream,” she said, having endured rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments. “When I woke up though, I realized so much had happened.”
Anxiety, tremors, and the inability to walk or even swallow kept her hospitalized at Yale and later at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in New York. Through it all, however, Sarah was never alone, as her large family worked out scheduled visitations, especially from her father Gonzalo who never left her side. Along with the inspiration they drew from each other and their community, it was their unwavering faith that sustained them.
“There was a time when we seriously feared her death,” said Sarah’s mother Karla, “but I had already talked to God, and I accepted what he had given to me. We were blessed with His graces, and it brought our family closer.”
That family, including Sarah’s 10 siblings, leaned on their strong religious upbringing and the support of Catholic Charities and the Room to Grow (RTG) preschool in Norwalk during the months of Sarah’s hospitalization and ongoing recovery. A proud and humble couple, the Martinezes said they never “stressed over material things,” but with Gonzalo on leave from his job and Karla juggling the needs of her younger children, the family relied on the generosity and prayers of others, especially those connected with RTG.
“We are so blessed. Room to Grow takes care of everybody,” said Gonzalo, with his family surrounding him in a large room at the preschool where eight of his 11 children have attended over the years.
As Sarah, now in remission after being discharged in August, recounted her story of struggle and rehabilitation, her younger siblings played cards, constructed Lego towers, munched on Goldfish crackers, and rested in the arms of their teacher, showing the loving atmosphere of RTG which has become a second home to this family.
According to Sarah’s mother, program director Nancy Owens and program coordinator Regina Terenzio are “special sisters and therapists” to the family, collecting meals, diapers and toys for them while Sarah was in the hospital, though Karla is grateful for so much more.
“With Room to Grow, it’s not just the material goods but the friendship,” she recalled. “They always have time to listen. I don’t know how we would have gotten through this without them.”
Owens, who has known the Martinez family for over 20 years, remembers Sarah as a typical teen prior to her illness: funny and enthusiastic with a good sense of humor. “And a fighter!” Owens emphasized. “Her faith in God has guided her through this challenging journey and continues to give her strength.”
While RTG and Catholic Charities supported the Martinezes with food, clothing and tuition assistance, Owens added, they also helped make connections within the Norwalk community to assist the family during Sarah’s hospital stay. And at home, Sarah’s sisters and brothers took over. Twenty-two year old Angelica left college in Arizona to become a second mom to the little ones as Karla cared for Sarah. Despite their own illnesses and injuries, Bella, 15, and Miguel, 11, have assumed some of the responsibilities that Sarah previously handled, along with Alex, 13, who commented on the difficulties they have all faced.
“It was hard to keep it together sometimes,” said Alex, pausing from the game of Uno he was playing with Miguel, “but I knew I had to set an example. I want to show a good pathway for my siblings.”
It is another pathway, paved with the generosity and compassion of so many, that has helped Sarah and the entire Martinez family over the last six months, but their needs are still so great. Amy Zajac of Catholic Charities said this is a family of remarkable faith but limited means. “They are in dire straits but continue to be so optimistic,” she added.
A GoFundMe page was established with Karla posting frequent updates on Sarah’s condition. Progress is being made toward their goal of $25,000, though the Martinezes are still not financially stable, needing a car and continued assistance with medical bills.
“Every donation, every meal, every gift we are grateful for. Thank you for showering us with a boundless amount of love. We ask for your continued help,” Karla wrote, referencing a “wish list” of necessities such as gift cards and car seats, along with Christmas ideas for the children.
In recognition of all the Martinez family has received, Sarah, now back to school part-time at Cardinal Kung Academy in Stamford, has established a group devoted to corporal works of mercy. “I was always praying and trusting in God,” said Sarah. “So many people gave to my family. Now I want to give back.”
Despite the financial needs and the emotional toll of Sarah’s illness, the Martinezes have persevered thanks to their community of faith and their appreciation of the “small things that really count,” said Gonzalo, opening his arms to seemingly encompass his family and their beloved preschool. “We are so blessed. We get through because God unites us all. We are grateful and we are happy.”
Anyone wishing to assist the Martinez family is asked to contact Nancy Owens, program director for Room to Grow, at [email protected].
Written by Emily Clark as seen in Fairfield County Catholic.