When Norma Loza woke in the hospital two years ago, she could no longer walk or converse with her friends and family.
Only four months before her graduation in 2010, Loza suffered a stroke that added physical and mental challenges to her everyday life. But her dream of receiving a UC Berkeley degree motivated her to prevail and graduate this past Saturday more than two years later.
“I decided I was going to do everything in my power to get back to Berkeley,” Loza said.
On the day of the stroke, Loza was scheduled to tutor a student in Oakland but called in sick when a headache overwhelmed her. The last memory Loza has is eating before her roommates rushed her to the hospital.
The stroke was a result of arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of vessels that developed in utero.
After doctors performed a surgery, Loza woke and realized her abilities to walk and hold conversations were gone. The doctors predicted that Loza would either return to her normal self or live in a vegetative state for the rest of her life.
“They would always tell me, ‘You’re not going to walk,’ and I said, ‘Why?’” Loza said.
Through physical therapy rehabilitation, Loza gradually gained the ability to hold conversations and, despite the opinion of medical professionals, walk. However, she still struggles with right hemiplegia, a partial paralysis of the body. She has limited movement of her arm and must wear a brace on her right foot, as her ankle and toes are also unable to move.
Jazzmin Adibi, a high-school and college friend, said one sacrifice Loza had to make was the choice to postpone her education in order to rehabilitate her mind and body.
“I think that was her biggest struggle,” Adibi said. “She had to take a step back from her dreams and recuperate.”
Janet Rodriguez, a close college friend, said she and Loza’s family were concerned over whether Loza would be able to obtain her degree.
Both Rodriguez and Adibi credited Loza’s personality traits, such as her determination and optimism, with giving her the strength to continue her recovery efforts and educational endeavors.
“Once she has something on her mind, that’s it,” Adibi said. “She refuses to imagine a life where she’s not going to live out her dreams, even with a stroke … She’s a warrior. She’s a survivor.”
Loza returned to UC Berkeley in the fall of 2012 to finish her bachelor’s degree in film studies.
Although she had a reduced course load, the work was still very challenging for Loza. Her short-term memory and ability to focus were affected by the stroke, making it difficult to take final exams and read large amounts of text.
Two of Loza’s biggest inspirations are her recently deceased high-school English teacher Toni Romero and her grandmother. Romero encouraged Loza to attend UC Berkeley, and Loza said she derives her stubbornness from her grandmother.
“I feel very proud of myself because it’s been difficult coming back to school,” Loza said.
Loza’s ankle movement has not returned, but she believes it will one day.
“It has to,” Loza said. “My toes will move one day.”