New life after a near-death experience

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[media-credit name=”Eter Dafne Estrada” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]

Spanish Professor Deana Alonso-Post (center) helps her students with a project in one of her Spanish classes. Alonso-Post said she believes that “work is play is work” and she creates different games where students can learn their Spanish vocabulary while having fun.

April Fool’s Day was a good day for Professor of Spanish Deana Alonso-Post. It was her first day back teaching after eight months of terrifying illness and tenacious recovery. It was a perilous journey and not the first time she overcame catastrophic life-changing events.

 

A native of Mexico City, Alonso came to Southwestern College in 1979, took English as a Second Language and earned an associate degree in mathematics. She made Southwestern home again in 1995, this time as a newly-minted professor.

Within a year of her arrival an unthinkable tragedy hit. Her husband, the brilliant Professor of Engineering Dr. Costas Lyrintzis, was murdered by a deranged student gunman at San Diego State University in 1996 in a crime that shocked the nation. In an instant Alonso was a widow and a single mother of a one-year-old daughter.

She dyed her hair black and solemnly mourned her husband for a year. Then during a stirring address during a memorial for Lyrintzis at SDSU on the one year anniversary of his murder, she pledged to get on with her life. Even in death Lyrintzis was a model husband and father.

“If I had not had that full-time job and my husband had not provided us with good insurance, I would have lost my house and my life would have been totally different,” said Alonso.

Alonso rebounded to become one of SWC’s most talented and respected professors. She authored two successful textbooks and was voted Outstanding Faculty Member. Her daughter Sofia was growing up a spunky and outgoing personality like her mother and a kind intellectual like her father. Alonso was happily re-married to Frank Post, an SWC adaptive computer specialist with Disability Support Services.

Life was good for Alonso when tragedy struck again last year in August, shattering her life and leaving her new husband, family and the campus community in shock.

She underwent emergency surgery for an aneurism that burst, spreading blood through her brain. After days of headaches, nightmares and hallucinations, a perforated colon led to a second surgery, triggering a stroke. Waking up the next morning, she found herself in terror.

“I could not speak,” she said. “I could think in Spanish, but I could not speak a word of it.”

Even with the headaches and hallucinations, she said she possessed all her thinking and considerable language abilities, but the stroke prevented her brain from connecting her language center to her speech center. She slowly began to speak in small words, but only in English.

“I really panicked,” she said. “Inside my brain was fully working, but I could not tell anyone. I realized I was stuttering and sounding like an idiot.”

Her sister, Professor of Spanish Esther Alonso, said it began during a trip to Italy. She said her sister had problems with dizziness and had tripped twice.

“We just thought she wasn’t paying attention,” she said. “When her husband found out that she had had dizzy spells and fallen, he insisted that Deana go to the hospital and find out why these things were happening. The neurologist saw her and told her we need to have surgery tomorrow.”

Alonso’s doctor found a nine-millimeter aneurism with a weird shape and a daughter aneurism attached. He told her if it burst she had a 30 percent chance of living and an unknown chance of keeping all her abilities. Deciding to go with the surgery, she wrote her family and colleagues hoping for the best.

“After having someone die in my life, I know how difficult it is to deal with,” she said. “So I got all my papers in check, gave them to my husband, told him to take care of my daughter in case anything happened.”

Alonso said Post never left her side. Without him she said she might not have survived. Post did everything she needed, even changing the dressings of her open wound three times a day for four months while they waited for her colostomy reversal.

“My husband was an angel,” said Alonso. “So I believe I had an angel up above and down here looking after me. But it was tough.”

Behind the scenes, headed into surgery, Esther Alonso said that it was Dinorah Guadiana-Costa, chair of world languages, who did most of the work to keep the classes going, relieving the family to face the crisis at hand.

“It is amazing how fast you can solve problems when it is imperative,” said Esther Alonso. “It was one day to the next without any preparation. That tells you how fantastic the department is.”

Guadiana-Costa said she did what she had to.

“When she was going in for surgery, no one was ready for how things turned out,” she said. “That is, that her aneurysm would burst in the middle of surgery and she would remain on the verge of death for weeks.”

Anguished day and night by her condition, Guadiana-Costa said she could not stop worrying about Sofia, Frank and her dear friend Esther Alonso. Guadiana-Costa said it seemed impossible to start the new semester without Alonso.

“I felt like a ghost coming back to classes—invisible, empty and lost,” she said. “I went through the motions but they were rote and totally meaningless. She just had to get better.”

Alonso did get better, but only after several setbacks. With the horrible headaches and hallucinations she thought people were there to sell her body parts and believed her husband wanted her deported. Even though she had just gone through the “hell of brain surgery,” her perforated abdomen could kill her, meaning another surgery.

“I kept thinking, ‘This cannot be the end of me here’,” she said. “It was hard to have so much fear, but I did not break down. I was very strong. The whole time I was in the hospital there was always someone with me, even every night. I was not alone for a minute.”

After the stroke, she said she felt lost and the loss of her native tongue scared her most of all. She said little by little, she spoke more English and eventually the Spanish came back.

“When I began speaking in Spanish it came stronger and better than the English,” she said. “I believe it is because it is my native language and always a part of my life. It was amazing that I began in English, but it was scary because I teach Spanish.”

Esther Alonso said Deana was finally able to come home while waiting to have the colostomy reversed. While Alonso recovered from the surgery and the stroke, she started feeling ill again. She went back to the hospital for five more days, once again faced with deadly consequences.

“She had a bacterial infection that ruins your stomach and intestinal lining caused by the colon surgery,” said Esther Alonso. “It was very dangerous and painful for Deana. She had lost weight through the prior surgeries, but this was the one where she lost the most. When released from the hospital, she started climbing out of the hole all over again.”

Alonso said it took about three months before she began feeling normal. Going to a speech therapist and with a colostomy bag, she said she came out of the hospital “like an old rag, walking with a walker.” She said she lost more than 30 pounds on top of wounds from two surgeries and a severe infection that set her back.

“It was very difficult, both physically and emotionally. I was just so depressed,” she said. “Then they could not reconnect me because I had a huge tumor in my uterus.”

It took four months before the two surgeons could work together. During that time she got a huge cyst on her ovary, once again in extreme pain and facing another surgery. She said she was amazed that her current health benefits covered it all.

“But that surgery was good and I felt normal,” she said. “It was hard, but now I think my brain is between 95 and 98 percent back.”

For 20 days faculty fed her family, Alonso said. Each day someone would bring food to feed the family for the day. She said her 76-year-old aunt came to take care of her twice after the first and third surgeries.

“My aunt is a swimmer, beginning at 15, and has won medals in her division,” she said. “And she is in better shape than anyone. She would help me bathe. She made me walk every day, even when I started at about 10 steps at a time. Now I walk three miles every single day.”

Esther Alonso said it was “Deana’s personality, strength and tenacity” that sped her recovery. She said the tragedies and adversities that her sister has faced would have made another person give up, but her sister never loses sight of her goals in life.

“Even when her husband was killed, she did not fall to pieces because she had a 14-month-old baby that needed a mother,” said Esther Alonso. “She is incredible. If those things would have happened to me, I would have crumbled.”

Alonso said she notices small grammar mistakes or forgetting the right word from time to time, and experiences sciatic pain due to weakened muscles.

“I am a fighter,” she said. “I am going to come out of all of this just like everything else. I have my life, my family and my colleagues to support me. I won’t take no for an answer.”

She came back in April with a reduced load for six weeks to see if she was ready to teach.

“It was invigorating to me,” she said. “I love so much what I do, the minute I got into the classroom I forgot all the pain, everything. So, this semester I wanted to come back with a full load. It’s good to be home.”

SWC has been home since 1979, she said, when her father decided to move the family business. He sold everything they owned to make a home for his family. With the exception of her sister, the entire family moved to Chula Vista.

“My father burned all the boats leaving Mexico City, like any great Spaniard would do,” said Alonso.

Alonso said she came to the United States well educated, just finishing her first year of university in Mexico City. Her parents went back home to Mexico after a few years because they could not recreate the lifestyle they had there in Chula Vista. Her brother moved with his family to Tijuana, leaving the Alonso sisters living in a tiny apartment. Alonso earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics because she felt she did not have a good command of English. Numbers, she said, are numbers.

Her experiences as a migrant and an English learner gave her empathy for SWC students attempting to learn English without having a proper structure of their native language. Alonso returned to college to earn her Master’s degree in linguistics with an emphasis on second language acquisition at SDSU. She later earned another Master’s degree in English as a Second Language.

“I became fascinated in the transition of going to English from Spanish,” she said. “I had gone through it, but for me it wasn’t hard. I had a very good educational background and you transfer all of those skills with you. You do not have to relearn how to think, or organize thoughts for an essay. But my students had a lot of problems because they had no skills in their native tongue to transfer into English.”

Alonso said she is a strong believer in bilingual education and giving students the language they already have, strengthening and solidifying the foundation of language to transfer to learning English.

Before coming to SWC she taught at Castle Park High School, Pasadena City College and Citrus College. She co-authored, along with her sister, two textbooks. Entre mundo and Invitaciones. After many rejections and unwilling to give up, she published Invitaciones with her own money and eventually sold the rights. It is now the official text in more than 100 college and universities in the United States.

“Destiny has interesting ways of finding what you are going to need,” she said.

Alonso said she did not want to be a “halfway-there citizen.” She wanted to make sure the United States did not become like parts of Mexico where they do not protect their people. In August 1987 she became an American citizen.

“I wanted to be part of the people, to have a say and this country has always been so good to immigrants,” she said. “Those of us who want to work hard and do something. To be industrious and creative, this country has always been there for us. It is just amazing. I think anyone who comes to this country and works hard can. It is not so in other countries.”

Through all her trials, Alonso said the people in her world, her country and her home inspire her.

“Life has hit me pretty hard,” she said. “But it has also given me many blessings, my daughter and my family. I have an awesome sister. And now I also have an awesome husband. That is good news. I believe I have been blessed all my life by having people around me that make me a better human being.”

 

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