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St.mu Grad Writes Book On Her Cancer Recovery

Alejandra Ugarte, 22, battled a tumor in her brain 12 years ago. She overcame cancer and has written a book about her life and recovery.

San Antonio Express-News

(Photos by Kin Man Hui/Express-News)

In the Ugarte home in Southwest San Antonio, the 41 ceramic angels on the living room tables represent more than decoration for Alejandra and her mother, Noemi.

They believe that once in a lifetime, guardian angels appear to those in need. And one such appearance, Alejandra said, delivered her from a life-threatening operation for brain cancer 12 years ago.

At age 9, after experiencing excruciating headaches for several months, Alejandra suffered a seizure that caused her to collapse. A CT scan detected an egg-size tumor at the base of her brain.

Within 72 hours, Alejandra and her family were flown from Panama City, Panama – where her father, Gabriel, was stationed – to Brooke Army Medical Center.

Surgeons told the family that if Alejandra survived the operation, she still faced the possibilities of blindness, paralysis or a speech impediment.

Her mother was undaunted by the grim news. Her faith held strong, she said, that God would not let anything happen to her daughter.

While her mother prayed, her father worried. Then the long wavy hair that Alejandra loved was shorn for the operation.

“If I’m leaving, let me go,” Alejandra told her mother before being wheeled into the operating room.

It was during the 31/2-hour operation that Alejandra recalls having an out-of-body experience. She remembers seeing four tall angels at the end of an illuminated tunnel. They spoke to her without moving their lips.

“Remember, He’ll never let you go,” Alejandra said the angels told her. “This is just a glimpse; you have to go back. Tell anyone who will listen about your experience.”

She heeded their words.

Today, Alejandra Ugarte is 22 years old and is in the process of publishing her life story in collaboration with Diane Bertrand, a writer-in-residence at St. Mary’s University whom Alejandra met while taking an independent study course.

“It’s not a pity story,” Bertrand said. “It’s a wonderful celebration of Alejandra’s personality, and it shows her sense of humor and deep faith. The reader (will) feel a great kinship with her.”

The book’s title, “Just a Glimpse: The Declaration of a Grateful Heart,” is taken from the words Alejandra said she heard as she hovered between heaven and Earth.

Through the prologue and 14 chapters, Ugarte writes of her recovery.

Her first hurdle was getting past 61/2 weeks of radiation therapy, which left her bald. She recalls years of taunts, starting in fifth grade, from classmates because she had to wear wigs.

She poured her time and energy into studying and later was selected for the gifted and talented program at Jay High School. In her junior year, she won a 10-day trip to Italy for a personal essay about her ordeal titled “Dear Father.”

She graduated fourth in her class of 611 and enrolled at St. Mary’s. There she made the dean’s list and joined several volunteer organizations, including the President’s Ambassador group, Alpha Phi Omega and the Adopt-a-Brother program for retired Marianists.

In her junior year, she stopped worrying about appearance and concentrated on accomplishing her goals.

“I tried everything, and if I’m bald, then so be it,” she said of ending prayers for her hair to grow. Weeks later, wisps of hair appeared for the first time in 11 years.

A week ago, she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in English communication arts. The four colored cords draped around the neck of her graduation gown represented an educational accomplishment, but none could compare to her successes in simply surviving.

“I want to let kids know this can happen to anyone,” she said from the living room filled with ceramic angels. “It’s shaped who I am.”