San Luis Obispo 18-year-old suffered cardiac arrest, but every day, she comes up smiling

Ivy Alvarado enjoys a light moment during a physical therapy session recently with Linda Wolff.
Ivy Alvarado enjoys a light moment during a physical therapy session recently with Linda Wolff.

Ivy Alvarado is on track to graduate from San Luis Obispo High School in June, and she plans to walk in the commencement ceremony.

Such goals are not unusual for 18-year-olds, but Ivy suffered full-blown cardiac arrest in the summer of 2008. The incident deprived her brain of oxygen, and ever since, she has been climbing her way out of debilitating disabilities and reassembling her life “piece by piece,” in her own words.

“It’s all in there,” Ivy said, pointing to her head during a recent lesson with her home hospital teacher at San Luis Obispo High School.

When Ivy suffered cardiac arrest, doctors told her parents, Melinda and Frank Alvarado, that there was virtually no hope. They said the brain damage was severe from such a prolonged period with no oxygen to the brain.

But today, Ivy has a ready smile and a great sense of humor. Her humor was one of the very first things to come back.

She admits she still stumbles over words, but she has made tremendous progress.

She attends physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, where she plays “games that make my brain go faster.”

The physical therapy can be so challenging at times, it gives her a headache, like it did Tuesday. Working on the left side of her body makes the right side of her brain hurt, she said.

Ivy is now studying English and government with home hospital teacher Ardith Knadler. Knadler said next trimester will feature final work in English and an overview of economics.

Ivy’s original graduation date would have been last June, but she was still working on basics — like getting movement back.

Principal Will Jones said it is expected that Ivy will complete her studies and graduate this June.

“We’re just happy she recovered,” Jones said. “She’s one of our favorites.”

She still keeps in contact with many of her friends who graduated last spring.

“All of my friends from way back when are still my friends,” she said. “I don’t see them as much, but they have been great.”

Doctors have found no explanation for why her heart stopped that July day as she was working at a San Luis Obispo Subway restaurant.

Ivy has heard the stories about how things were in the first few days after the incident, but she can’t remember.

“It was really frustrating, because I couldn’t tell I was hurt and everyone was saying it,” she said, repeating what she has been told from that time. “I just wanted to go back to bed because then I would wake up from this awful nightmare.”

One thing that did return was the memories of what she had learned in school and life before it happened.

She still knows that environmental studies was her favorite class at San Luis Obispo High, and that Jenny McCartney was her favorite teacher, and she remembers trying to stump McCartney with complicated questions.

The sheer cost of her care, therapies and treatments is overwhelming. Ivy may soon max out on the $1 million limit on the insurance her father gets through his work. The insurance allows 12 therapy sessions a week, but she needs many more than that.

The family savings is gone, Melinda said. That is why the Alvarados appreciate fundraisers like the one being held by the 5 Cities Men’s Club this weekend.

The family is thankful that Ivy didn’t have to completely start over.

“What I was more concerned about was that all those years of schooling would be lost and it would have to be relearned,” Melinda said. “But she didn’t have to. It came back.”

Ivy hopes to become a hospice nurse, serving those who are near death. Her family has kept her old Mercedes-Benz — altered to run on vegetable oil — for her to someday drive again.

Her mother said she is making tremendous progress.

“She didn’t see it at first, but now she does,” Melinda said. “It’s just not coming nearly fast enough for her.”

Fundraiser Saturday A fundraiser is set for 6 p.m. Saturday for Ivy Alvarado at the South County Regional Center. It is sponsored by the 5 Cities Men’s Club. Tickets can be reserved at 481-1006. Donations can be made by calling 929-5211.