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Cancer survivor uses Make-A-Wish scholarship to study pre-nursing at UNLV

Updated September 16, 2020 - 8:20 am

Teenage cancer patient Jorge “Fabian” Trejo-Ibarra carefully considered his options when he was told he could request something big and bold through the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Trejo-Ibarra, now 18, wanted to look to the future even though he had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he decided that the best choice was to ask for help paying for college.

As a result of his optimistic outlook, Trejo-Ibarra, who’s now in remission, is today studying pre-nursing at UNLV with a $5,000 scholarship to help make it happen.

“It’s an incredibly large amount of money,” Trejo-Ibarra told the Review-Journal last week, noting that it will cover about a year of his studies. He has earned other scholarships, too, and believes he has enough aid in total to cover four years of college.

Make-A-Wish, based in Phoenix, grants wishes worldwide for children from 2½ to 18 who have critical illnesses.

In July, Trejo-Ibarra came to Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada’s office with his parents and sister thinking he was there to finalize some paperwork. But when he arrived, he was shocked to see a room decorated with UNLV memorabilia and to discover that he’d received the scholarship, funded by the company Rig-Rents.

For Trejo-Ibarra, going to college wasn’t on his list of priorities while he was undergoing cancer treatment and spending weeks on end in hospitals. But that changed after he received the scholarship, he said.

‘Passion for learning’

“I owe a lot to Make-A-Wish,” he said. “They really reignited my passion for learning.”

Trejo-Ibarra said he was interested in health care even before his diagnosis in November 2018 and subsequent treatment, but his experiences as a patient and interactions with many nurses throughout his treatment clarified his desire to go into the field.

“The dedication of my nurses to my health was very eye-opening for me,” he said.

Many people immediately think of doctors when they think of the medical field, but Trejo-Ibarra said nurses fill an important role in caregiving.

“Nurses do most of the grunt work and most of everything else, and they don’t get the respect they deserve in my opinion,” he said.

Trejo-Ibarra, who lives with his family in Las Vegas, is enrolled as a full-time pre-nursing student at UNLV and juggling his first-semester classes with a 30-hour-a-week job at Walmart.

UNLV is holding about 80 percent of its fall classes through distance learning. Trejo-Ibarra is taking most of his classes remotely, but he has one in-person math class.

He said he doesn’t have to ask for permission from medical providers to go out in public anymore, since it’s been more than a year since his cancer treatment concluded.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a little more complicated, he said, noting he’s considered at high risk of suffering serious complications because “chemotherapy does wipe out your immune system.”

‘It was pretty rough’

Trejo-Ibarra was a 16-year-old junior at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas when, shortly before Thanksgiving 2018, he began experiencing symptoms that included a cough, sweating, fatigue, weight loss, headaches and nausea.

They intensified to the point that Trejo-Ibarra went to an emergency room, where preliminary testing was done and medical providers said he may have Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that starts in the lymphatic system.

He underwent a biopsy and the diagnosis was confirmed. He found out the disease was at stage 4, meaning it had spread from where it started to at least one other body organ, and started treatment quickly, beginning his first round of chemotherapy in early December 2018.

Trejo-Ibarra received treatment at Cure 4 the Kids Foundation. And he bounced between Summerlin Hospital Medical Center and Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center “for dire circumstances,” such as when chemotherapy wiped out his white blood cells and he was “incredibly susceptible to any kind of infection.”

He spent weeks at a time in hospitals and wasn’t able to go to school.

“It was pretty rough,” he said of the more than six months of chemotherapy and radiation he went through before learning that his cancer was in remission.

Making a wish

In early 2019, about halfway through his cancer treatment, Trejo-Ibarra’s oncologist told him that he had put in a recommendation for him with Make-A-Wish.

“To be honest with you, I had no idea what that was,” he said.

Trejo-Ibarra said the organization gave him some ideas of what he could wish for and what they had granted in the past.

At that point, he had no idea if or where he was going to college.

“I still had a little bit of time left to gauge my options when it came to higher education,” he said.

He held off on making a wish until his senior year of high school.

“He wanted to be smart about what his wish could be,” said Quinn Weathers, wish manager for Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada.

Trejo-Ibarra’s choice to study pre-nursing was “totally inspired by his own medical journey,” said Weathers, who described Trejo-Ibarra as “such a great kid” who’s dedicated to planning for the future.

His was one of dozens of wishes Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada has granted in 2020, she said. The chapter was aiming to grant 176 wishes in 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of wishes granted has declined, largely because many involve travel, she said.

Instead, the chapter has refocused on local wishes, such as room makeovers and play sets, things that allow for safety but “still bring joy in this time of craziness,” Weathers said.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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