Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Amelia Wray, a volunteer from the Princeton Novogratz Bridge Year Program.

Noemi’s Story – A Journey of Triumph

In the quiet darkness of a rain-soaked night, the rhythmic hum of the truck´s engine was lulling the occupants into a drowsy stupor. Noemi, just 15 years old, sat in the back of the truck with her siblings, returning from Santa Cruz. The narrow roads they were traversing seemed endless, shrouded in the darkness of the early morning hour. The rain, relentless and unforgiving, painted a slippery sheen on the worn-out road.

As they continued onto the Chimoré bridge, the truck came to an unexpected halt, and Noemi´s brother leaped out to assist their father, attempting to revive it. In the background, the bridge continued to fill with the hard pouring rain, now a treacherous and foreboding expanse. 

Suddenly, Noemi´s senses heightened as an approaching light pierced through the night, and the realization struck her too late. There was another vehicle hurtling towards them.

The collision was inevitable. Metal shrieked against metal, and the impact sent shockwaves through the ground. Noemi was thrust violently from the back of the truck, her body crashing onto the unforgiving ground below.

As the chaos erupted, her family frantically searched for her in the murky water below, unaware that she lay underneath the collided vehicles. Although Noemi was left with no memory of the events, her brother recounts spotting her in the midst of the confusion, concealed beneath the wreckage. With a quilt as his makeshift lifeline, he plunged into work, dragging her from the abyss of the crash. 

Noemi´s next recollection was waking up in a hospital bed. Aside from the glass in her back from the incident, the doctor hurriedly assured her that she was fine, his attention diverted to the driver of the microbus, whose injuries were more visibly severe. Unbeknownst to them, her internal injuries told a much different story – a fractured spine among them. When she voiced her concern about her immobile feet, the doctor dismissed it as temporary. It was at this point that Noemi decided to reveal a secret that she had been carefully guarding from even her own family. She was five months pregnant.

This revelation was initially met with skepticism from the medical staff, prompting an ultrasound that confirmed her truth. Her medical care suddenly took a drastic turn, but an X-Ray to discover her internal condition was deemed too risky for her unborn child, and she was transferred to another hospital. Once she had arrived at the new hospital, with no family around to support her, another ultrasound was performed. The room echoed with a haunting silence until the words cut through, sharp and final.

“We couldn’t find a heartbeat.”

The grief was suffocating, as was trying to comprehend the magnitude of loss. But as the doctors began discussing next steps, another performed a final ultrasound to confirm the passing. All of a sudden, a tiny, faint heartbeat emerged. Disbelief swept across the room as the baby’s heartbeat grew stronger and stronger, undoubtedly alive.

Despite this large victory, days turned into weeks and Noemí´s condition was not improving. She was still unable to move her legs, eat, or keep anything down her stomach, even water. The doctors, concerned by her deteriorating condition, decided to take a risk and perform X-Rays to understand the extent of the damage.

It was just then that the shocking truth was finally revealed – Noemi´s spine was broken, crushed on impact with the ground. The doctor thought over possible solutions, but when he returned to Noemi, his face was etched with the gravity of the decision that awaited her. 

Noemi was given two choices. Two choices that no one should ever have to make. One surgery would give her the chance to walk again, but in doing so take away her unborn son´s life. The other surgery would save her child, but leave her permanently bound to a wheelchair.

The weight of the decision hung in the air and Noemi and her family grappled with the agonizing dilemma. They pleaded with her to choose her ability to walk, but Noemi, fueled by determination and love for the life growing inside her, made a choice that would alter the course of her existence. She opted for the surgery that would allow her son to live, even if it meant sacrificing her own ability to walk. Months later came a baby boy. 

Noemi´s journey continued to unfold, entering a long and harsh 4 ½ year period where she remained confined to her house, with the sole exception of hospital visits. After the accident, she had no desire to go out in public, staying inside and caring for her son, until one day, a teacher arrived at her doorstep. The teacher’s arrival became a turning point, introducing her to the possibility of returning to school and pursuing higher education. Although initially hesitant, Noemi realized the importance of breaking free from the confines of her home, hoping to provide a better future for her son. 

Returning to school wasn´t an easy decision, but Noemi expertly navigated through the difficulties, attending classes once a month to pursue her studies. She quickly gained favor with her teachers, showcasing a remarkable aptitude for learning. Over three years, she not only excelled academically but also nurtured a growing desire for independence. 

Driven by this determination, Noemi sought ways to experience life on her terms. Even in her studies, she strived to be self-sufficient, earning a college scholarship that allowed her to choose her own career path. Opting for systems engineering, she faced the challenge of starting from scratch, not even knowing the basics of turning a computer on or working the keys.

Undeterred, Noemi borrowed a computer from her sister, who was studying veterinary science. She also took on a job at the Transnational Terminal, which provides secure and convenient transport for journeys of longer distances, such as from Cochabamba to populated regions of the Amazon. Here she was quickly promoted to Sector Secretary of the Transnational, due to her stellar aptitude for growth. She recounts this being her first real introduction to office work, but with the help of friends, she quickly learned to help manage the many different transports and passengers of the terminal. Sundays remained dedicated to selling goods at local markets with her sister, 6 am to 10 pm, a testament to her unwavering work ethic. 

Despite encountering bias and judgment along the way, Noemi refused to be defined by her physical condition. She grew to rise above the negativity, focusing on her goals and proving that her abilities transcended any preconceived limitations.

In the midst of Noemi´s academic journey, a pivotal chapter unfolded during her engagement in fieldwork. Overcoming the challenges presented by Bolivia´s limited accommodations for individuals with disabilities proved to be an arduous task. Recognizing Noemi´s unique journey, her college affirmed that Mano a Mano was the ideal setting for her to thrive and be both accepted and accommodated while working towards her degree. 

Noemi, at Mano a Mano’s Physical Therapy center onsite at our CEA in El Abra, Cochabamba, Bolivia

The decision to leave her son behind for two months was not easy, but was rooted in a profound understanding of the long-term benefits for both of their futures. It was a testament to her unwavering commitment to securing a better life for herself and her son.

Noemi´s dedication to her fieldwork has extended beyond personal growth, now a cornerstone of her academic pursuits. Without the accessible opportunities at Mano a Mano, her years of diligent study would have been for naught, and her dream of attaining a degree would have remained unfulfilled. Now,  in this symbiotic relationship, Noemi has not only contributed to the organization with her technological systems expertise, but has found a platform where her aspirations and abilities can be celebrated and supported, ensuring that her educational endeavors were not in vain.

Additionally, one of the aspects that has truly set Mano a Mano apart in Noemi´s narrative is its state-of-the-art physical therapy center. After a hiatus spanning over four years, Noemi, thanks to the center, was able to resume and improve her physical therapy regimen. This resurgence marked a significant turning point, with the center offering numerous benefits to her overall well-being.

Today, Noemi continues to make significant contributions with Mano a Mano, utilizing her skills in computer systems. She is well on track to complete her degree, and her story proves that one’s potential is never defined by physical limitations. Noemi´s resilience, pursuit of education, and unwavering commitment to shaping her own destiny serves to inspire others to embrace life’s obstacles with courage, break free from self-imposed limitations, and create opportunities for a brighter future against all odds.

Learn More

Training Workshop for 19 Physical Therapists in Cochabamba, November 2022