A Desire To Live Unlike Most Ever Know
Corona native Desiree Esparza has endured ovarian cancer and the horrors of a near-fatal auto accident to qualify for university.
WARNING: Contains graphic content and mature subject matter.
By Jerry Soifer
Featured Contributor / email@example.com
Recently graduated Corona High senior Desiree Esparza was so proud of her dark, brown hair that she let it grow to her waist.
It didn’t matter that she might have run a little faster in cross country as a sophomore with shorter hair. She tied it in a pony tail.
It didn’t matter that her hair made showers longer after races and training runs.
Desiree’s hair has been her identity since she was 7.
“My friends knew me as the girl with long hair or a pony tail,” she said.
Then, she lost much of her hair. Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer at age 15 took it.
“She was sad when she started to lose her hair,” said Saija Monugian, a friend since the fifth grade.
She lost so much hair that Corona Fire Capt. Jim Steiner thought Desiree was a boy when he started to rescue her from a shattered Ford Mustang that overturned in an accident that killed two friends and trapped her and two others.
Desiree looked like “a cone head,” said her mother, Cynthia Perez, when she saw her in the hospital after the accident.
Graduating “is quite an accomplishment… for the adversity she has been through,” said Steiner, who led the rescue effort at the accident scene.
Desiree, 18, is a changed, college-bound student with career ambitions.
“I’m much more cautious now in the activities I do,” she said. “I just want to be successful.”
She maintained a 3.1 gpa at Corona, and will attend Cal State Los Angeles in the fall.
“I wanted to be a nurse before all this. I want to be a nurse even more now,” she said.
Anthony Esparza, Desiree’s father, said his daughter has “a humble spirit that enabled her to cope with circumstances that would have overwhelmed an adult.”
Anthony said Desiree showed that spirit before and after the sickness and accident by willingly taking care of her brothers, Anthony Jr. and Alex, both adolescents.
Desiree was competing in her first season of running cross country before symptoms of cancer were noticed by a doctor giving her a physical for her to run track in the spring. The doctor told her he felt something hard in her abdomen.
On Dec. 3, 2013, surgeons at the Loma Linda University Medical Center removed a 13-pound tumor that was attached to an ovary. She began 2 1/2 months of chemotherapy. She stayed in the hospital two weeks at a time for the treatment. She had been doing her school work at home during the chemotherapy.
Corona High teacher Shane Wiley, Desiree’s teacher during her traumatic time, said, “If I had faced what she faced, I don’t know how motivated I would have been. She was not only motivated to do her assignments but also to learn.”
She had just returned to school when she found herself confronting her own mortality for the second time.
She had gone to a friend’s South Corona apartment for a barbecue. She and four others were riding in a speeding Ford Mustang to get food for the barbecue when the accident occurred about 6 p.m. on May 5, 2014.
Esparza was sitting behind the driver Crystal Urena, 20, who was headed northbound on Via Pacifca in Corona.
Desiree said she and other passengers complained about Urena’s high rate of speed.
Police said Urena had a blood alcohol reading of 0.18, more than twice the legal limit. Desiree said she did not know Urena had been drinking.
Desiree said the driver, Urena, a Santa Ana resident, swerved to avoid a car which had just turned into the path of the Mustang. Urena lost control and the car overturned.
Desiree’s head was thrust out of the window behind the driver’s seat. She said she wasn’t ejected because she was strapped in by a seat belt meant for one with her friend, Monugian.
Desiree’s head was pinned between the roof of the Mustang and the pavement. She saw Saija’s cell phone on the ground two feet away.
She pulled it in. She asked Saija for the code to dial. Firefighters had arrived so she didn’t dial 9-1-1. Desiree called the first number she remembered — home.
No one answered.
She next called her grandmother, Delma Gonzales, because she did not remember her mother’s number.
“I don’t want to die,” Desiree told Gonzales who rushed to the scene wth Perez, her daughter.Steiner, the Corona fire captain, arrived on Truck 1. He took charge of the rescue effort. Steiner pronated himself on the pavement.
“I touched her head,” Steiner said. “She let out a scream which meant she was conscious.”
He asked her name. She said, “Desiree.” Steiner realized she was a girl.
“I tried to figure out how to lift the car off of her without squashing her head like a grape,” he said.
Firefighter Andy Torres tried to use the jaws of life to free Desiree. It didn’t work. At the same time, firefighters Jake Portillo, Paul Miramontes, Jeff Davis and Bobby Martens worked to free the other people as a crowd including Esparza’s relatives watched.
Steiner and Torres put air bags under the roof. Using hoses from air bottles, they inflated the bags to remove the pressure on Desiree’s head. It took 20 minutes. She was then pulled out through the driver’s side door.
Esparza told rescuers there was a stent in her chest for the chemotherapy she had been receiving.
Monugian and Ruben Martinez-Urena, the brother of the deceased driver, were taken to the hospital for treatment of their non-life threatening injuries.
Javier Lua, 16, the passenger in the front seat, died from his injuries at a hospital several days after the accident.
As Desiree was wheeled on a gurney to the ambulance, her mother and grandmother yelled her name. She waved at them.
She was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton.
She underwent a full body x-ray. Her spine and lungs had been bruised. Doctors stitched her lacerated left ear and other cuts on her face. With glass fragments still in her head, she went home a day after the accident.
Her cancer has remained in remission. She has an MRI every three months. She said she was very nervous about the results at first. She has gained confidence in her recovery as time has passed.
She said she anticipates being able to have children since her ovaries were not removed.
Desiree hasn’t forgotten her friends in the accident. She recently joined an 18th birthday celebration for the late Javier Lua at the accident site.
Desiree has become a more open person since the cancer and accident, Monugian said.
“She was a pretty closed person before,” said Manugian, who was strapped in the backseat with her friend.
Monugian is 18 now, and residing in Rancho Cucamonga.
“It was a life saver,” Saija said about her seatbelt despite being hospitalized for three days. She suffered cuts all over her body but has since recovered.
Desiree did not return to the cross country team, but her room is dominated by a huge get-well sign from her former teammates.
Anthony Esparza said his daughter has been an inspiration to family and friends.
“No father could ask for a better daughter than the one I was blessed with,” he said.