September 20, 2016 | by Stephanie Smith
Thirty-eight years ago, Rodrigo Nunez was a skinny, long-haired teenager picking grapes under the punishing central California sun. On a particularly hot afternoon in May he noticed bruises all over his body. A month later, in addition to the bruising, blood started steadily trickling out of his nose.
Soon, Rodrigo was fainting at work. He later was diagnosed with a rare, potentially fatal blood disease called aplastic anemia. “My bone marrow was not making enough cells,” says Rodrigo, now 56. “(Doctors) told me I would probably run into trouble with bleeding and infection.”
For Rodrigo, the weeks following his diagnosis were a jumble of emotions — from anger at having been diagnosed with a deadly disease so young to, gradually, the gauzy dream-like appearance of purpose. His experience with a life-threatening illness, ironically, gave him the clearest glimpse of a future. It would happen in between treatments, during long walks around the City of Hope campus.
“I used to walk around this beautiful campus and dream while awake,” says Rodrigo, one of the first patients to receive a bone marrow transplant at City of Hope. “I would walk, and think and dream, and all my dreams became about going back to school and becoming a nurse.”
Rodrigo would later trace this newfound dream to a time before the walks — an act of kindness on his first day as a patient. When he arrived, the 18-year-old was famished, but lunchtime already had passed.
“I was hungry, hungry, hungry,” Rodrigo recalls. “My options were 7UP and crackers. One of the nurses offered her lunch to me. At that point, I said, you know, when I grow up I want to become a nurse. I want to be just like them.”
That simple gift spurred Rodrigo, a teenager whose life up to that point had been about basic survival — who spoke no English and who had dropped out of school at age 12 — to return to his studies.
“I was working in the fields and I probably still would be working in the fields,” says Rodrigo. “That was my plan. I wasn’t thinking about going to school anymore, but once I met these people, once I came to City of Hope, inspiration just came to me.”
Inspiration carried him through the next 10 years, from learning to speak English, all the way to graduation from nursing school. Weeks after graduating, Rodrigo’s story came full circle; he was hired as a nurse at City of Hope. He cared for one of his first patients — coincidentally, a young man with aplastic anemia — in the same hospital room where he was treated.
“Talk about a dream come true,” says Rodrigo. “I was taking care of patients, working with the same doctors and nurses who saved my life.
“I remember one of the doctors saying to me during that first week, ‘You made it. You’re here.’”
It has been 29 years since that week. Today, Rodrigo is a still a nurse at City of Hope, and is one of the institution’s longest living bone marrow transplant recipients.
“I love my job, and that I can be there for patients,” says Rodrigo. “I have received in my life so many blessings, and all of those blessings started from my illness.”