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Civil engineer career on horizon after battling bone cancer

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With his laptop computer in hand, Juvenal Lechuga carries a full load of classes at Delta College planning to transfer to San Jose State University in the fall where he will major in Civil Engineer...

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin/

POSTED April 6, 2014 11:08 p.m.

Six years ago Juvenal Lechuga was a Nile Garden School eighth grader struggling to overcome bone cancer.

Today at age 19 he’s not only a cancer survivor but also a math and science achiever wrapping up classes at Delta College to transfer to San Jose State University in the fall.

Inspiration for education came from a first grade teacher.

And the drive to never give up gave Lechuga the impetus to succeed and to conquer his illness as he battled cancer with a half dozen surgeries over a year and eight months of chemotherapy. It required the removal of a knee and a seven- inch section of his femur leg bone.

He credits his eighth grade classmates and teachers for being there for him through his year in a hospital in the Bay Area.  Despite his medical challenges he graduated near the top of his class at Sierra High School before going on to Delta College where he will graduate next month.

San Jose State

awaits in the fall

In the fall Lechuga plans to go on to San Jose State University where he will be majoring in Civil Engineering.

He said that his math and science homework are a snap —  it’s the social science assignments that take time. In addition to his basic college classes at Delta, he is also taking a political science class.

Asked where he gets his strong character traits, he quickly responded that it comes from his dad Luis Medina —who like his mom — Bertha, has been there for him throughout his entire ordeal. Along with his family there has been a four-year varsity soccer player at Sierra High, Daisy Rivera, who was there to help sustain his spirit from the time everyone first learned of his illness. 

“She’s still here for me,” Lechuga said.

During an interview at his rural Manteca home early in his fight with the cancer in 2008.  Lechuga was in his bunk where he lay seriously ill with a deathly gray over his complexion. He talked then about his condition and his diminishing dreams for the future. he did his best to answer questions while intermittently throwing up in a plastic dish pan next to his pillow.

Lechuga was worried about the possibility of losing his leg and even more concerned about maybe not being able to play competitive soccer. His goal had been to play professionally after graduating from college. Six years later, the Delta College sophomore was looking perfectly well,  jogging up the steps in his home \to get something out of his room.

One sad note in his recovery was the theft of his four-year-old pet Chihuahua, Xica, that he and the entire family had grown to love for its affection to Lechuga and the others in the home.  His mom Bertha said they still hold out hope that somehow the dog will find its way home.

“I never realized how much cancer can kill the passion of many young kids and make them suffer so much,” Lechugal wrote in a recent college paper.  “I see life completely differently now.  For example I don’t take life for granted.  I live life with no regrets and of course I live life to the fullest.”

His dad couldn’t

figure how to start car

He remembered the day his parents were told of the seriousness of his illness by a doctor in her office while he was asked to stay in the waiting room. 

“My parents walked out and my dad looked speechless and my mom was just trying to hold her tears,” Lechuga recalled. “As soon as we entered the car my mom couldn’t stop crying and my dad couldn’t figure out how to start the car. This was the very first time I saw my dad cry.  I had no idea he could even make tears. He has always been the toughest and strongest person I know.”

“When we got home I ran upstairs to my room, laid on my bed and could not stop crying,” he remembered. 

That day was followed by countless chemotherapy treatments and an eighth grade year of being tutored in a hospital with short stints at home.

It was in the last week of elementary school that Juvenal got to come home from the hospital for final testing in his eighth grade classroom.  That day two officers from the Manteca Police Association went to his home to deliver a gift to him having learned he was an academic student and a soccer athlete as well.

Police officers’ gift

of a laptop computer

The officers were told the boy was at school and they were soon led into his eighth grade classroom by the principal and actually interrupted testing that was in progress.  They wanted to help the struggling youth they had heard so much about.  The officers knelt down on each side of Lechuga’s desk, with other students in awe, and opened a brand new laptop computer in front of the sick youth with an ominously  gray complexion.

The officers’ gift made the impact on the youth they had hoped for as he would be able to do his school assignments while in the hospital.

When serving as the manager of the Sierra High Varsity Soccer Team in 2010 he was awarded the Mike Thomson “Character Counts” award.  That was followed in 2012 with the San Joaquin Charter Scholarship for $1,000 for the student having courage and determination to overcome personal circumstances and yet maintaining high expectations and realizing personal success. 

In mid-July he is scheduled to return to the University of California Medical Center for his final surgery. Doctors will replace the original titanium knee and the partial knee bone prosthesis with a larger adult version.

 “I am looking forward to it,” Lechuga said of the surgery. “I just want to get it over with.”

He recalled that early on in the two years of 2008 and 2009 after his diagnosis, he had received a lot of letters from friends and from people in the community. 

“I didn’t get back to them,” he said. “It was hard for me. All the classes at school, I am really close to all of them.”

Carlo Rivera and his sister Daisy were first on his list of close friends.  Then he noted Kevin Rivera, Armando Gonzalez, Juan Gomez and Aaron Montez.

Prefers to dwell

on positive things

As to the immediate future, Lechuga is look forward to not having to go to the hospital any longer and to be able to play soccer in the park with his family on the weekend and with his friends. 

“I can’t explain how I feel when I am on the field,” he said.

“When I look back, I just look at the positive things.  Like every Thursday, we would have Bingo nights.  When you couldn’t leave your bed, you could play on your TV and they would bring the prizes to you into your room,” he said.

Lechuga still sees the staff members from years ago at Nile Garden School where his two brothers are students. He attends their sports games.  Christian, 14, is just finishing up on his season in basketball and his brother Marco, 11, playing soccer.  They both are going out for track, he said.

“I never let the fact that I had cancer get to me nor did I ever use it to my advantage,” Lechuga said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t like it when people feel bad for me. I’d much rather they be happy for me after all I’m still here. The nurses knew me as the kid that always had a smile on his face.”

Lechuga still can’t drive. His mother takes him to his classes at 6:30 every morning. A fellow student drives him home in the afternoons with about three to four hours of homework.

His weekends include going to church Saturday afternoon with his family and to flea markets in Modesto on Sunday morning along with those longed for soccer games with family and friends.  And then there is watching sports on TV with his dad and brothers — with a focus on boxing.

Lechuga’s mother Bertha has worked as a certified nursing assistant for years at county hospital.  Now she has recently completed course work to become a medical assistant on her road toward becoming a registered nurse that will include another stint in college herself. 

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