CCU graduate overcomes great obstaclesby Corrie Lee Lacey
At 43 years old in May 2002, Maritza Isabelle was told she had one year to live. Isabelle’s mother took her hand, looked the doctor in the eyes, and said, “Only God knows when He’s going to take my baby.”
She was right. Nine years later, Isabelle will walk across the commencement stage at Coastal Carolina University and accept her undergraduate diploma.
Isabelle was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself. She left the doctor’s office that afternoon and went to her Surfside Beach home. Lying awake in bed that night, watching her digital alarm clock, she says every minute that ticked by felt like one less minute with her two children.
“Thinking I only had 365 days to spend with them was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” says Isabelle. And she’s had more than her share of hardships.
A month after her diagnosis, Isabelle was out for a ride on her friend’s Harley when a 14-year-old driving a pickup truck struck her. Her head was split open, and she was rushed to the hospital. The accident would leave her without any memory of her life and confined to a bed for months.
“The pain was excruciating,” says Isabelle. “I didn’t remember my own children. I didn’t remember my own house.”
Isabelle eventually stopped eating; she stopped caring.
“One day an angel came to my home,” she says. “She would put chicken noodle soup on the tip of my tongue until I got better.”
The angel was Sheila Muller, a member of St. Michael Catholic Church. But Muller was only one of many people who looked after Isabelle.
“My children would alternate days missing school so they could stay at home with me,” says Isabelle. “There were good days and bad days.”
On good days, Isabelle would convince both her children to go to school. She’d talk the hospice worker into going home early.
“When no one was home, I’d wheel my wheelchair to the edge of the stairs and look up the staircase toward my bedroom,” says Isabelle. “I knew that I’d remember walking up those steps and thought ‘If I can just drag myself up there, maybe I’ll remember something.’ So I’d try. I can still remember falling – I fell so many times.”
Eventually, church members began driving Isabelle to therapy, where, after a year and a half, she was able to feed herself, and her memory finally returned.
“I prayed to God every day,” says Isabelle. “I would promise him, ‘If I ever walk again, I’m going back to school, and I’m going to make a difference to humanity.’”
She was walking by late 2003, and by January 2004 she was enrolled at CCU. But it wasn’t an easy journey from there.
The Spanish major underwent six months of chemo treatment in an attempt to put her illness in remission.
“I looked so awful with no hair and the disfiguration of my hands due to the scleroderma,” she says. “I didn’t want to go back. But Elsa Crites [professor of world languages and cultures] convinced me to.”
And when Isabelle walked into the Spanish classroom after a week off, her desk was decorated with scarves and hats the students had made for her.
“I cried so hard,” says Isabelle. “I was so touched by those kids.”
Isabelle says the students at CCU have always been kind to her.
“The first few weeks every semester are awkward,” she says. “They stare at first, but eventually they start helping me pull the books out of my bag and they pick up my pencil when I drop it a hundred times each class.”
Isabelle says without the love and support of her fellow students, along with Crites, professor Ronald Green and Disability Coordinator Wendy Woodsby, she wouldn’t have been able to make it through the hard times.
“She’s had more than her share of hurdles, but she continued on the path she had chosen,” says Woodsby. “Now, she will reap the benefits of all of her hard work. I am so proud to have met her; she is an inspiration to me and to us all.”
At home, Isabelle says she couldn’t have done it without her children – daughter Jamie, who will graduate from Queens University in Charlotte this December, and son Ryan, who graduated from CCU with a degree in biology in 2009.
When Isabelle graduates, she plans to become more involved in literacy programs and hopes to volunteer as a mentor to children in Horry County.
“Obviously, God has a plan for me,” she says. “I’m just waiting for Him to show me the door so I can walk through it.”
On May 7, Isabelle will walk in front of more than 9,000 people and shake CCU President David DeCenzo’s hand.
“I am so proud to wear my class ring and so grateful for all the wonderful people I’ve met here,” says Isabelle. “I am so thankful to Coastal for making my dreams come true.”