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Luna CDL grad Santiago Gallegos comes back from stroke, defies odds

He never gave up

Luna CDL grad Santiago Gallegos comes back from stroke, defies odds

By Dave Kavanaugh
Luna Community College

Close your eyes.

Imagine for a moment that when you opened them again, you could not talk. Imagine that you could not walk – or even move one side of your body.

Imagine not knowing if you’d ever be the same again.

In early April 2020, Luna Community College alumnus Santiago Gallegos – then just 20 years old – faced this very situation when he suffered two strokes within days of each other. Gallegos, a Robertson High graduate known for his prowess as a lineman for a powerhouse Cardinal football program, was working as a welder at the time. He was getting ready for a day of work when it happened.

“I went to get up, and I just fell,” he recalled.

“He couldn’t get up,” said his mother, Gail Rains. “The way he was talking, I couldn’t understand him. He was very pale, and sweat was just dripping. And then the left side of his face … fell.”

Initially, Santiago’s younger brother Rico picked him up. Rains saw the ominous symptoms and called 911. Gallegos said he refused to be carried to the ambulance that came and managed to amble to it, dragging a leg that had suddenly lost much of its sensation.

A couple days later, it happened again. This time there would be no stubborn ambling or dragging.

“The second one hit me worse,” he said. “From the top of my head to my foot on the left side. I was getting ready for work, got off the couch and I just fell to the floor … Everything felt like a dream.”

Gallegos found himself being airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital. He was unaccompanied, as the hospital had recently instituted strict protocols due to the surging COVID-19 pandemic.

Back home, Rains struggled to cope with the evolving situation, forcibly separated from a young son who’d just suffered a massive stroke, his fate very much up in the air.

“Everything in your mind starts spinning,” she said. “My dad had suffered a heart attack the year before. How do you tell them?”

Once medical personnel at UNMH steered Gallegos through the dicey stages and stabilized his condition, a new, sobering reality began to dawn. Though his life had been saved, the prognosis was grim.

“I was told I wasn’t supposed to walk again,” he said.

A torrent of conflicting emotions and thoughts followed this.

“I was kind of angry,” he said. “I felt like my body had let me down … I was more disappointed in myself. I felt useless, like I was no good. (And) everything had been going good. I was 20 years old, cruising around in a brand-new pickup. A kid my age, all I wanted to do was party. And work. I just didn’t feel myself. Before, I felt immortal.”

A long period of rehab at an Albuquerque facility lay ahead, and he’d have to make do without family or friends physically there to support him – again, due to COVID precautions. Rains said she sensed he was becoming depressed and started to send him “Tom & Jerry” cartoon videos to cheer him up.

“Thank goodness for FaceTime,” she said. “We’d do group chat as a family. It was important for him to see us. And for us to see him.”

“I prayed all day every day,” Rains said. “There were times I’d be overwhelmed. I’d leave work and just come home and cry. And then I’d have to pull myself together.”

“I never said to him ‘If you get better …’, ” she noted. “I said ‘When you get better …’.”

“My whole mindset was (I’ve got to get stronger) and do what I gotta do,” Gallegos said. “I told myself I can’t be (weak) about it. There was some sadness but mostly anger – but there wasn’t doubt.”

“I was in a wheelchair, going to rehab. The first day I stood up, my doctor said he’d seen people who’d had strokes that weren’t as bad as mine who’d never walked again. I sat there and told him, ‘You don’t know who (…) I am.’”

Gallegos endured seven days a week of three types of therapy – speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy – as he learned to reacquire basic skills most people take for granted. How to swallow. How to walk. How to talk. Pushing persistently to regain movement and control of one body part at a time. Even the most grueling late-summer two-a-days in football season had nothing on this regimen.

“Every day I’d wake up, somebody would help me get up, put on my socks, get dressed,” he said. “Nurses and techs, they were maybe five or six years older than me – they’d help me do everything. It’s hard not to be motivated, wanting to make yourself better. Every day I pushed.”

“My family were a big help. My family, my brothers at work too. They put in 50, 60 hour weeks. I thought about them a lot. I thought about my friends and getting back to being myself.”

One day, Gail Rains’ phone rang.

“Santi called me and said, ‘Mom, I walked today.’”

“’Okay, I told him,’ she continued. “I said, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to walk farther. You’re going to take a few more steps.’ I told him, ‘Never let anybody tell you you’re not going to do something.’”

On Sept. 7, some 522 days since Gallegos’ first stroke, he passed his state commercial driver’s license exam after completing training through Luna Community College.

It was a day of particular pride for most of his inner circle. For Gallegos himself, it meant a chance to keep working, taking on a new career path after having started as a welder.

“Life changes,” he said. “You’ve got change with it. I can still weld, but slower … I wanted to stay with the same company I was working for, so I went and got my CDL.”

Gallegos, who’d also earned his welding credentials after attending Luna out of high school, said the college helped him regain his footing as the hard-working individual he’d been.

“I liked Luna,” he said. “I took welding. I took auto body. I got my CDL. All the teachers were cool. I learned a lot there, especially in auto body. I’ve got a couple friends going there now. In CDL, my teacher (Florencio Garcia) worked with me, and we worked around my disability.”

Now his brother Rico is also enjoying the Luna experience, enrolling in welding courses. Like his big brother, he’s pursuing a career in vocational trades. Together, they frequently work on projects, just as they have since they first started earning money as kids, shoveling snow or doing yardwork for neighbors.

“Rico’s doing amazing up there (at Luna),” Rains said. “Luna’s been really good for my family. I went to Luna, and other members of my family have too. It’s smaller. It’s more comfortable than having to battle with a (larger) college. It’s affordable. Rico loves the classes up there.”

“I’ve liked it so far,” Rico said. “I’m always getting to learn new things, both in welding and auto body.” He said Santiago taught him much of the basics of welding, and he’s become particularly interested in artistic types of welding.

Rains said her boys have grown increasingly close over the past couple years, and Rico has been glad to help Santiago adapt. “I love that guy,” Gallegos said. “I’d do anything for him. He’s literally picked me up off the floor. He always tries. That’s one solid dude.”

As for Santiago himself, the road back to normalcy continues. The daily routine includes multiple accommodations to help him move and complete basic activities, though he’s moved on from using a cane to walk. There are certain things he can’t do, at least not yet. Therapy continues, though less frequent. Regular MRIs are on the schedule, and medications are part of life.

“He’s come a long way compared to where he started,” Rico Gallegos said of his brother. “At first he couldn’t walk 15 feet.”

But there’s been tremendous progress. And there’s hope.

“He never gave up,” Rains marveled. “He’s always been stubborn. But his biggest weakness became his biggest strength.”

“He’s a stubborn guy,” Rico agreed. “He never likes to ask for help either. We only help him when he really needs it.”

“There’s so many people going through worse,” Santiago Gallegos said. “We all go through hardships. We all go through speed bumps. It’s the way you get over them that shows who you are.”