Three strokes couldn’t stop this woman from getting her degree


Brian Hayes

Donna Rodriguez looks at her daughter, Mayra Rodriguez, and smiles in her hospital room. Donna is recovering from a stroke.

Lying in a hospital bed, Donna Rodriguez remembered something — she needed to pick up her diploma.

But she was stuck in bed, partially paralyzed, and in no shape to go anywhere.

Her degree was finished, but her diploma was out of reach. So her daughter, Mayra Rodriguez, took the final step for her.

Rodriguez had worked in the aircraft industry her whole life. For years, she had worked at Learjet, a local airplane manufacturing company, putting wiring into planes.

Learjet was where disaster first struck.

Donna Rodriguez had a stroke, paralyzing her right side for three weeks.

But her mind was set — she wouldn’t let her body give up. Movement slowly returned.

She started walking again. She was using a walker, but she was mobile.

Then disaster struck again. Learjet laid her off.

A rainbow came after the rain, however — Learjet was offering a program for recent layoffs. If Donna Rodriguez went to school and finished a degree in two years, the company would pay her tuition.

Teaching kids was her lifelong goal. A single mom with five children of her own, she never had the time or money to chase that dream. Until now.

Taking 21 hours a semester at Wichita State while studying elementary education, she worked as a teacher’s assistant at Griffith and Colvin elementary schools, helping with fourth graders and kindergartners. She grew attached to the classrooms.

She was wrapping up her degree when the second stroke hit on the Fourth of July.

This one was worse. It immobilized her left side.

The stroke revealed more bad news — she had two aneurysms, the doctors said. Donna Rodriguez needed a stint in her brain, they said, to return blood flow to the left side of her brain.

She got the stint and recovered.

Then the stint closed off.

Rodriguez had a third stroke, the worst of the three. It left her completely paralyzed.

Surgery was set for Sept. 5, and it went smoothly. Nine days later, she was lying in her hospital bed, feeling bad — but better.

Then she remembered — her diploma would be ready tomorrow.

Stuck in the ICU, Donna Rodriguez thought there would be no way she could pick it up on time.

So her daughter did it for her.

Mayra Rodriguez, a Cowley College sophomore, drove to campus to pick up her mother’s degree.

Holding her mother tight, with tears rolling down their faces, Mayra Rodriguez had some words to go with the diploma.

“Just like you thought you couldn’t get this, we can get past this.”


Brian Hayes
Mayra Rodriguez sits on her mother’s bed while Donna Rodriguez sits in a wheelchair in the her room in Via Christi St. Teresa.


A teacher teaching herself

Before her second stroke, Donna Rodriguez helped teach grade school kids, with the ultimate goal of being the teacher that impacted her students’ lives for the better.

“When you think back, there’s at least one teacher that inspired [you] to do something,” Donna Rodriguez said.

“I wanted to be that teacher.”

The younger the kids, the more impressionable they are, she said. That’s why she wanted to teach kindergarten.

“They’re like sponges at that age,” Donna Rodriguez said. “They just soak up everything. Reading, writing, math — everything.”

Now she’s teaching herself, with some help from her daughter — how to walk, how to talk, how to teach her whole left side to function — how to, eventually, get back in the classroom.

“I do want to go and get my license,” Donna Rodriguez said. “That means student teaching for a semester.”

But for now, her focus is on getting her body moving again. She’s retraining her brain to do simple things.

“It’s like having a dead leg and a dead arm,” Donna Rodriguez said.

“They’re there but you can’t get them to move.”

Mayra Rodriguez said her mom has kept her sense of humor through it all.

“She’s named her hand,” Mayra said. “She calls it ‘her little buddy.’ She says he’s worthless right now, but she needs him.”

During her daily physical therapy, a therapist tries to move her muscles and get them to work together with her brain. Parts of her body are also given electric muscle stimulation, sending a shock into a connectionless area to link it to her brain again.

“Basically, the connection is lost,” Mayra Rodriguez said. “She has to mentally make those pathways back in her brain.”

The stroke affected her whole left side, impairing vision along with speech, which is slower and more deliberate than normal. In order to make sure she’s working her left eye, Rodriguez has to wear an eye patch.

“She says that she’s a pirate now,” Mayra Rodriguez said.

Mayra helps her mom with everyday things — changing her clothes, putting socks and shoes on, and eating.

She prays with her every night.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get through this if it wasn’t for God,” Mayra Rodriguez said.

She spends every night with her mother, sleeping on the couch in her room at Via Christi St. Teresa rehab center. She said she has no intention of leaving until her mom doesn’t need her.

“Since I’m not working, I kind of have no reason to leave her,” Mayra Rodriguez said. “As she gets better and as I see progress, I’ll eventually leave so she can be become more independent. That’s the goal.”

There is a chance that some parts of her body may never move again. She’s made progress, though, Mayra Rodriguez said. Doctors have seen movement in her thigh.

“It’s all motivation,” Mayra Rodriguez said. “There may be a possibility it may not come back if she gives up.”

Mayra Rodriguez said she felt she had to be her mom’s motivation — a small return on a lifetime of encouragement and care, she said.

“If she feels like someone needs her help, she’ll be there every step of the way,” Mayra Rodriguez said. “I had to return the favor.”

Staying by her mom’s side inspired Mayra Rodriguez to pick a new career path as a certified nursing assistant. She was working as a nanny before but was unsure where to go with her future.

“I knew working with people was something I wanted to do, so this gave me the courage to go forward and help people.”

Mayra Rodriguez previously lived at home with her mom. She was about to move out over the summer, she said, but her mom’s health kept her from leaving.

It’s been hard, at times, to stay positive, Mayra Rodriguez said. She said she tries to never let that show.

She tells her mom that God put them on this journey for a reason — “to teach others that they can do it even when they think they can’t.”

Mayra Rodriguez said staying by her mom’s side through the hardest chapter of her life made her realize something — parents spend much of their time raising and caring for their children. Often, that care and compassion is lost on kids after they move out.

“Sometimes we forget that our parents are also getting older,” Mayra Rodriguez said. “They spend so much time raising us, and we just kind of go off afterward. I’d be extremely sad if my pride and joy just walked away.

“We have to remember, sometimes our parents need us too.”