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For Roanoker Greta Estacio and her daughter, Grace, earning their higher education degrees required more than hard work and determination — it demanded that they persevere through the deaths of both men in their lives within two years.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Grace Estacio is pictured while volunteering with her church at the VA hospital as part of a Global Service Day. Grace and her mom were visiting and playing games with patients at the hospital. Grace Estacio and her mom Greta, are both graduating with higher education degrees on May 11.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Greta Estacio talks with a veteran while volunteering with her church at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center as part of Global Service Day last month. Greta and her daughter, Grace, were visiting and playing games with patients at the hospital. Both graduated with higher education degrees Saturday.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Grace Estacio (middle) laughs as she picks up a spare while video bowling with Army veteran Larry Robinson (right) at the Salem VA hospital.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Greta Estacio (left) and her daughter, Grace, both graduated with higher education degrees on Saturday. Greta earned her doctorate in nursing from Radford University and Grace earned her master’s in school counseling from Liberty University.
Courtesy of Estacio family
This Estacio family portrait was taken in 2008, before Alex Estacio and his son, Jay Estacio, both died from the same hereditary disease.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Francisco Pablo taught his three children to read two books every day: the Bible and an English dictionary.
Greta Estacio and her older sister and brother — Suzette and Francisco Jr. — were expected to look up one word per day in the dictionary to help themselves learn English. They were living in the Philippines, and Greta’s father preached the importance of education.
“He said that if we have the education, we will be respected everywhere we go and people will look at us differently,” Greta recalled.
On Saturday, Estacio, 54, graduated from Radford University with a doctoral degree in nursing practice. Her graduation fell on the same day her 26-year-old daughter, Grace, received her master’s degree in school counseling from Liberty University. Greta chose to attend only her hooding ceremony, skipping her graduation walk so she could be in Lynchburg for her daughter’s.
Both women have earned the kind of respect Greta’s father talked about. They also persevered through the illnesses and deaths of a husband and father; a son and brother.
They crammed for school in order to chase grief from their minds, and they relied on family and friends to hold them up when they could not support each other.
“We had all these people praying for us, and we didn’t want to just give up,” Greta said. “I wanted people to see their prayers answered through me.”
A family effort
Though Greta’s father died when she was 14, her family never stopped supporting his ideals — or Greta.
Suzette, the oldest child, turned down a marriage proposal and worked four jobs to send Greta to Concordia College in Manila, Philippines . When Suzette could no longer afford to pay, Greta worked as a maid at her aunt’s boarding house in the Nueva Ecija province in exchange for tuition at a nearby university. Every day, she washed the breakfast dishes of 50 to 100 boarders before class and cleaned the house from top to bottom until the early hours of the next morning.
Soon the schedule became too demanding and Greta’s grades began to slip. Her mother, Maria Socorro, stepped in to do the maid job for her. But in the Philippines, where adult children are expected to take care of their parents, Greta could not bear to let her mother do her work.
“Each day I come home, I saw my mom scrubbing the floor while I am studying and I could not take it for her to do my job,” she said.
She finished the semester and headed home, crying on the bus ride to Manila. There, she took a bank job and gave her salary to her mother. One bright spot at the bank was a young co-worker named Alex Estacio, who became her friend.
Almost two years later, Suzette got a good-paying job in Guam and was able to send her sister back to nursing school at Concordia. After graduation, Greta was recruited by Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, so she moved to America to earn more money than she had ever thought possible.
That young man, Alex, eventually followed her to Roanoke, where he got a job with Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), and they married in 1985. Grace was born in 1986, and Jay came two years later, in 1988. Although Jay was diagnosed with autism at 18 months, his parents were managing his therapy.
Up to that point, Greta had been through some challenges in her life. But what she was about to face would dwarf them all.
Most humans have a von Hippel-Lindau gene, which suppresses the development of tumors in the body. In people with von Hippel-Lindau syndrome , that gene is either altered or missing, causing benign and malignant tumors to grow.
In 1992, Alex Estacio began to suffer from headaches and heart palpitations. Doctors discovered a tumor in his adrenal gland and diagnosed him with the rare hereditary disease. He had to undergo a complicated surgery and was out of work for six months.
Faith gave the family a haven from their worries. About that time, Alex formed a home-based Bible study with his friend, pastor Ernie Ramos. Today, the 100 members of Jesus the Redeemer Church in Roanoke are raising funds for a new building under Ramos’ leadership.
“I have a very family-oriented church,” Greta says now, “so I always look forward to being there. I have that joy when I’m there. I have the release. I can pray freely. I can cry freely because people know me.”
After his first surgery, Alex was in and out of work and the hospital, often traveling to the University of Virginia medical center in Charlottesville for scans and additional surgeries. Suddenly, the nursing salary that seemed so generous to Greta was looking skimpy.
“I was working overtime to make ends meet,” Greta said. “I was thinking that going back to school is going to elevate my economic status.”
With her husband’s support, Greta enrolled in the master’s program at Radford University to become a nurse practitioner. When she bought an electronic dictionary to help with her homework, she thought of her father.
Five days after Greta graduated in 2000, Alex was back in the hospital, this time for surgery to remove a cancerous kidney.
During a reprieve from Alex’s illness in 2005, the Estacio family traveled to the Philippines to visit relatives. At dinner one night, 17-year-old Jay fell out of his chair.
“I thought he fell asleep,” Greta said. “His hand got floppy. I said, ‘Oh my God, I hope it was not more serious.’ ”
But back in Roanoke, doctors found a tumor on Jay’s brain stem. Jay had inherited von Hippel-Lindau syndrome from his father. During a lengthy surgery to remove the tumor at Boston Children’s Hospital, Jay suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side and left him wheelchair-bound.
Jay would eventually walk again — on the day of his graduation from Patrick Henry High School in 2007, he surprised his parents by standing from his wheelchair and slowly crossing the stage to retrieve his diploma. The goal, which he and his therapist secretly worked toward for months, was the subject of a Roanoke Times article.
Still, in the years after Jay’s stroke, Greta lived in a world of stress and fear. Her mother, who lived with the family, had Alzheimer’s. Her husband and son continued to fight their disease. Her daughter was in college, creating another expense.
She had to make a heartbreaking decision.
“Because of too many illnesses at home, I have to take my mom home to the Philippines and let my brother and his wife and their children to care for my mom,” Greta said.
Her mother died in June 2010. Greta could not be there.
Although Alex had been very sick, he had encouraged his wife to apply for the doctoral program in nursing the year before. He, too, had always told his children that education is important, and he knew Greta wanted to earn more money to help the family. She was accepted.
Two months after losing her mother, Greta lost her husband of 25 years. He was 54. But before he died, Alex encouraged Greta to go ahead with her school plans. The first day of class was the day after Alex’s funeral. As she drove down Interstate 81 toward Radford, Greta was riddled with doubt.
“I thought, ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’ But he told me to move on. He said don’t stop our lives because I am not here.”
At the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, where she had worked since 1996, Greta requested a demotion from nurse practitioner to registered nurse so she could have more time to care for Jay and go to school.
She was still working toward her doctorate in March 2012 when Jay died at age 23, less than two years after his grandmother and his dad.
‘Just keep going’
Even before her father got sick, when her parents were still learning about Jay’s autism, it would have been easy for Grace Estacio to feel neglected.
“Grace never asked why my husband and I were so … ” Greta trailed off in thought.
“Involved,” Grace filled in.
Far from being jealous, Grace had a special bond with her brother, who was only 21 months her junior. When she was 10, she made a storybook about his autism called “The Missing Piece That Only God Can Fix.”
She also adored her father.
“I can’t imagine a relationship closer,” said Grace’s longtime friend, Myra Marcelo. “She was totally a daddy’s girl. She really, really loved him. She even kind of looks like him.”
Watching her father and brother suffer drew Grace closer to her mother. In 2012, Grace entered Greta in a Roanoke Times Mother’s Day makeover contest, writing “After losing my father two years ago, I recently lost my brother as well. Experiencing this was the second hardest thing I could ever go through, but because my mom gave me so much love and showed me strength, I am able to overcome these hard times.”
At one time, the medical issues her family experienced made Grace think about becoming a doctor. But after her father’s death, she decided to parlay her undergraduate studies in psychology and education into a career as a school counselor, helping children through their own negative experiences.
“I see that she has that patience and passion,” Greta said. “She was a big sister to him [Jay], and he really looked up to her. I think her brother inspired her to be able to understand more children with disabilities.”
After they lost Jay, the Estacio women threw themselves into their studies.
“I think people need to find their way of grieving, and I think school definitely helped me to do it,” Grace said. For her mom, school was a way to manage her time so she wouldn’t succumb to crushing sorrow.
The women often found themselves commiserating over long to-do lists and studying together at night, with Greta asking incredulously “You’re already done?” when Grace closed her books. Being born and raised in America, Grace was able to help her mother with the language barrier that made writing papers difficult, even with a dictionary on hand.
“I think in my language, so I have to translate it,” Greta said. “What really is helpful is I can ask her, ‘Grace, can you check and make sure it’s correct?’ ”
According to Dr. Eunyoung Lee, an assistant professor of nursing at Radford, Greta took on a final research project more daunting than what many of her peers chose.
“This program is very rigorous. We are trying to stretch all the students’ comfort boundaries,” Lee said. “It is very easily that a student can get discouraged and then give up.”
Greta thought about giving up several times.
“I would email my teacher [and say] maybe I’m not the type for doctoral,” Greta said. “She would always tell me, ‘You’re doing good. Just keep going.’ ”
When Ramos announced the news of Greta and Grace’s graduations to the congregation at Jesus the Redeemer Church recently, “everybody was very excited,” he said.
“It is an accomplishment for every member.”
Grace’s friend, Marcelo, said she admires her for “her composure and her optimism.”
“It is a huge thing for anyone to have to deal with, but it’s as if she knew exactly how to deal with it — she can stay strong but at the same time not feel bad about crying.”
Family members are inspired by the Estacio ladies, too. In an email, Greta’s brother, Francisco Jr., explained the effect on him.
“Because of them, I was encouraged to go back to school (though I am already 56 years old) to get an associate degree in theology at Blue Ridge Bible School in Rocky Mount,” he wrote — the same school Jay attended before his death.
Greta, who was already strong in her Christian faith, said she has drawn closer to God through her ordeal.
“I think I have a very strong faith. That’s why I was able to surpass this sadness,” she said. “Whenever I feel that, I just kneel down and say, ‘You know, God, I know you have something more for me.’ So many times these knees drop to my floor.”
Greta wants to use her degree to open new career paths at the VA hospital and to conduct more research. With the help of Lee, she has prepared an abstract of her final research project — a non invasive tool to help detect coronary artery disease — to present to the American Heart Association.
Grace is interviewing for jobs in Northern Virginia, where she has always dreamed of living. Although she worries about leaving her mother, they both know she needs a new start.
If schoolwork was a cork to stem the flow of grief, graduation has released their minds to think again about all they’ve lost. A few weeks ago, Greta said, “The sorrow is multiplying because the day of graduation is coming and the people you want to be there aren’t there.”
They think about what their guys would say.
“Maybe my dad would say ‘Finally!’ because he always pushed me,” Grace said. “I think my brother would give me a high five.”
The Estacio ladies know exactly what they would do if Alex and Jay were here this weekend.
“If there would be somebody I could hand my success to,” Grace said, “it would be them.”
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