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With new challenges, hopes of Valley residents hinge on regional medical school

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    Ivan Delago, 15, is helped by therapist Nereida Montañeda at Milestones Therapeutic Associates where he goes through physical therapy August 21, 2013 in McAllen. Ivan lives with Cerebral Palsy and has been blind since birth.photo by joel martinez/jmartinez@themonitor.com

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Posted: Saturday, September 21, 2013 8:33 pm

Veronica and John Delgado know firsthand the changes they want to see from Project South Texas.

It’s connected directly to the miracle the Edinburg teachers have watched unfold before their own eyes — though it hasn’t always been easy.

At times, it’s been a painful journey navigating medical care locally. During others, and for so many other Rio Grande Valley residents, they’ve had to travel hundreds of miles to find the specialized care their son needs.

“I guess like everything you don’t expect; you know you have all these plans before the baby comes and in your mind you have it all planned out,” Veronica Delgado, 38, said in an August interview.

Project South Texas, they believe, could impact nearly every facet of their daily lives.

The title is only a placeholder for the plan to bring a new university with an integrated medical school. The “to be determined” nature of the university’s identity at this early point is seemingly fitting.

In August, their son Ivan celebrated his 15th birthday — a milestone that doctors more than a decade ago said would likely be unattainable. He is a severely disabled Edinburg high school student.

All those years ago, Veronica Delgado went into premature labor while visiting the Valley from Chicago for a baby shower with family. At five months pregnant, it was an unexpected and dangerous occurrence that would change their lives forever.

Today, Ivan’s main prognosis is cerebral palsy. He cannot see out of his left eye and has limited vision in his right. He is prone to seizures, has only one lung and also lives with scoliosis — an abnormal curve of the spine.

The Delgado family sees potential for life-changing research and innovation to help residents, especially people like Ivan, either directly or through a better local economy.

The new university and all the benefits promised to the Rio Grande Valley will come — but how quickly and to what extent is unknown.

The process of developing the new institution is complex and evolving, with plenty of unknowns for the public so far. Guiding principles, though perhaps somewhat abstract for the average person, were approved this summer. December is the estimated target to reveal the united university’s new name.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa on Tuesday will host forums with students and educators at two locations in Brownsville for input on developing the new institution, including the name. Forums in Hidalgo County are slated for October.

Evaluating what this project means for the Valley is a delicate balance. The region must weigh the exceptional potential, yet be honest about what it might expect as an area with a high poverty rate struggling with educational attainment, literacy and health concerns, such as diabetes.

Officials from all levels of government promise a positive impact on the Valley’s health care, education and economy.

But people here will be asked for something in return beyond buying into what the UT System is selling.

Local officials have said a taxing district will be proposed, much like in the ongoing development of a UT Austin medical school. UT System officials have said there’s no way the institution can be funded solely by one source, such as the state or the UT System Permanent University Fund — a $13 billion money well funded by oil and gas revenues — for which Valley schools had previously been ineligible.

The Valley’s existing UT System schools, the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville, will be consolidated — leaving questions about its potential positive and negative effects, especially upon jobs.

‘STILL IN THE ROCK AGES’

The Delgado family hopes the new institution will mean new technology can originate here, perhaps equipment that might even assist their son to one day walk on his own.

The University of Texas System said the economic impact study it commissioned continues to develop. Initial figures estimated by the Austin firm TXP Inc. cite 7,000 new jobs in the Valley by 2022 with an average salary of $63,000 (in today’s dollars) with possible growth to 10,000 in future.

UT System has said its end goal is creating a Tier One university: a national-level research institution status that will bring in more money through possible patents and grants, particularly from the federal level.

But the road to that level is long.

“From the parents’ point of view, from the people we talk to; we describe it as the Valley’s still in the rock ages because then when you go out of town you see all these different things that are being offered and we’re always the last ones,” Ivan’s mother said. “We’re always getting the leftovers.”

The couple can recall a time when they went to a Houston children’s hospital and received a specialized wheelchair — only to find it was more advanced than equipment available here, yet less expensive.

“That happens all the time,” John Delgado said. “You get the newer innovation up north. You come down here and it becomes part of the fabric here, but it takes a long time.”

Moreover, officials have hinted a regional university could necessitate a commuter rail — an already sought-after and studied regional project — or at least more mass transit.

Even athletics could see a “positive ripple effect,” though Cigarroa was non-committal when asked if the university could launch its own football team.

The first class of the new medical school is expected to graduate in 2018 under the UT Health Science Center — San Antonio as the new Valley institution continues to transition to a freestanding school.

While the rest of the nation’s population on average is aging, the Valley is becoming younger, according to UT System — making it ripe for bolstering education. As it stands, educational attainment here is lower compared to the rest of the state.

A SOLUTION TO ADVERSITY?

In August, when Gov. Rick Perry visited the Valley to ceremonially sign the bill that brought the new school, the family stood quietly at the reception — not invited as guest speakers, but attending as invested residents.

Not many people seemed to pay attention to them, with the exception — perhaps fittingly — of the UT System chancellor. He stopped to talk with them briefly as he traveled the room.

In Project South Texas, the Delgados see the foils to their own hardships:

>> They see the possibility of continuing education for local medical professionals and access to more specialists.

As a premature baby, too fragile to go back to Chicago, the Delgados made the decision to permanently move to the Valley.

John Delgado, 44, said early in life his son broke many records, but in the worst way.

“So when he made it they were kind of shocked,” he said.

While the family said they are grateful for Ivan’s medical caretakers, back then their son’s case was so unique to the area it was on the job training for those professionals. They hope the medical school preempts such situations.

“There’s a lot of things they didn’t know how to use or apply in regards to him,” John Delgado said.

Ivan’s body carries the scars from the numerous IVs that had to be used to medicate him at his birth and during trips to facilities in Corpus Christi.

“There were things that they were not taking care of here that as soon as we got up there, they were using different things,” Veronica Delgado said.

The specialist who saved Ivan’s retina in his good eye eventually left the Valley.

“That seems to happen a lot,” the couple said in unison.

“That was scary because when we would lose a good doctor, and that happened with the neurologist,” Ivan’s father said. “He came down and then he stopped coming down, so then that started the travel to him.”

>> Part of the reason, the couple said, is a stigma about the Valley they hope the school helps lift when it comes to medical care.

“When we got close to doctors they’d tell us about their medical insurance that they required for this area was astronomical compared to if they were in the city because they have to buy malpractice insurance,” John Delgado said.

Coincidentally, the governor visited Edinburg this month to celebrate a decade of tort reform that capped certain damages awarded in civil lawsuits.

>> Perhaps, the biggest coup the couple hopes for: A changed Valley culture of self-advocacy and empowerment in a neglected region.

After a serious incident during their son’s medical care in McAllen, the Delgados learned they must speak up for themselves, they said.

“It’s a different culture down here, where you know you grew up and you wait till people talk; if it’s a professional you don’t question them, especially if you come from humble beginnings. You’re brought up that way,” Veronica Delgado said.

Later, they began to keep a notebook with questions to ask at the suggestion of a Corpus Christi doctor.

“Did we make the right decision with them or did we allow them to make the decision?” John Delgado said of learning to ask for more explanation if needed.

THINKING GLOBAL

Cigarroa, the UT System’s chancellor and a Laredo native, can recall a moment in his own life he relates to one of Project South Texas’ goals — making college more accessible.

In high school, one of the most gifted students Cigarroa said he’s ever met said he wouldn’t go to college. The future chancellor’s friend couldn’t afford it and he couldn’t leave Laredo.

“There’s a moment in my life that I’ve never forgotten; that’s had impact to this day and, probably, I’ll take it to my grave,” Cigarroa said. “I remember just like, almost in disbelief because I never thought that could really happen.”

Officials aim to take this institution’s impact more than just locally. The advantage, Cigarroa said, lies in the Valley’s geographic location that allows it to be a portal to Latin America.

“We’re not thinking of this as a regional university,” he said. “This university could actually erase boundaries and say ‘Let’s not be just regional, let’s be global.’”

Already, he said advantage was proven when the Valley legislative delegation made him “incredibly proud” as they worked together to pass this bill for the new university — even with some initial jockeying over the location of its facilities in Cameron and Hidalgo counties.

“... And that is the rising tide will lift all boats, in this case,” Cigarroa said. “That’s the reason why literally 100 percent of the legislature passed this because they saw the delegation united.”

The effort pursued for more than 15 years by Valley legislators — dating back to when Regional Academic Health Center components began to be established here — became law this summer. The RAHC facilities in Harlingen, Brownsville and Edinburg will be used as the foundation of the new institution.

The unification of UTB and UTPA acts as a loophole-of-sorts around language in the Texas Constitution. UTB and UTPA were ineligible for Permanent University Fund money because they were once community colleges.

Ivan photo

PROGRESS

The Delgados show a strength and a fearless only earned through hardship. Their son is like most teenage boys, though he can’t communicate, with the exception of grunts as noises.

They describe him as a “happy-go-lucky kid” who loves to eat and enjoys sports. He loves to hear the squeak of shoes on the basketball court and the crowd clapping. A bit of a social butterfly, he’s been in marching since eighth grade, playing in the drum section.

His parents remark on the progress he’s made over time, going to two-hour therapy sessions twice a week for the past eight years. The high school sophomore’s hand-eye coordination and mobility grows.

“It’s been awesome. We wouldn’t change anything with Ivan,” John Delgado said.

There was a dark time they can still recall.

Once, a doctor scolded them for their efforts to save their son, saying his quality of life would be diminished should he live. Now, they wish they could meet that doctor to show him how wrong he was, they said.

One day, like Ivan, the progress of Project South Texas could be just as evident — or at least, that’s the expectation.

“The whole nine yards,” John Delgado said.

“We’re putting our hopes on this,” his wife added.

jarmendariz@themonitor.com

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