Until he snapped his back last fall, Richard Ruiz seemed like a teen-ager who had it made.
He was a drummer in the school band and had just worked his way up to first string on the freshman football team. Teachers at California High School in Whittier liked Ruiz, and girls adored him.
Three months ago, he made the mistake of ducking his head while making a tackle during a losing freshman game against Whittier High. California High Coach Tom Tereschek saw Ruiz and the other team's running back collide. Ruiz "fell on his back," Tereschek said, "and he didn't get up."
Ruiz, 14, remembers the moment as "like floating to the ground in slow motion." The initial diagnosis was grim. Two vertebrae were broken. One friend remembers hearing doctors say that Ruiz might never use his arms or legs again.
His Spirits Are Good
He is doing better than expected. He can hug friends, type three words a minute and write "like a first- or a second-grader" said Pamela Gamino Ruiz, his stepmother. He is shy during an interview, but friends and family say that his spirits are good. He may be able to drive and drum again, but he will do both with special--and costly--apparatus. The world will know him as a quadriplegic.
The family has health insurance, and recently applied for Medi-Cal. "Right now, we're just playing (finances) by ear," said Ruiz's father, Richard Ruiz Sr. "If I have to come up with more money, I'll do it."
Financial and moral support is streaming in from close friends and complete strangers. Neighbors threw a Christmas party to raise money. Fellow students at California High, where he is expected to return to school in September, went on the radio with an hourlong appeal.
Every week, Gamino Ruiz clears cards and letters off the narrow counter next to Ruiz's bed at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey. Recently she counted 30 foil balloons and enough cards and letters to fill several large plastic garbage bags.
Sandy Thorstensen, an assistant principal at California High, said the community has contributed $17,000 to Ruiz. That includes $10,000 from Westmont Industries, where Ruiz's father is a metal cutter.
Most of the rest came from dozens of fund-raisers by Whittier Union High School District students, staff and parents, and local service clubs. Students have held garage sales and bake sales, and still pass around coffee cans at sporting events. One group told fortunes at noontime. There's going to be a Chinese dinner, a spaghetti dinner, an adult football tournament and a dance, all to benefit young Ruiz.
Right now, the focus is on buying Ruiz a van by the time he is discharged from the hospital, probably in May. Estimated cost, including a wheelchair lift and modifications that will allow Ruiz to drive after he turns 16, is $30,000.
Thorstensen, who is coordinating the effort, vows to continue fund raising for several years. "I really love that kid," she said.
She even found Ruiz a friend: Robert Thome, 32, of Montebello. When he was 15 years old, Thome--now a widely respected artist who paints with a brush in his mouth--broke the same vertebrae as Ruiz, making a tackle on the same football field. Thorstensen's husband was on the Pioneer High School team with Thome.
Ruiz and Thome were both taken to Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier and then to Rancho Los Amigos, where they had the same doctor. In both cases, their schools launched major fund-raising efforts.
Thome and his wife, Kathy, visit Ruiz regularly. They answer his questions and provide living proof that a quadriplegic can lead a full life. Thome described Ruiz as "a kid with a smile that reaches inside of you."
Unwillingness to Sue
Ruiz and Thome also share a high regard for their schools. Neither wanted their parents to file lawsuits as a result of their injuries.
Thome's parents left the decision up to their son, and no action was ever filed. Ruiz's parents have taken matters into their own hands.
On Dec. 23, Gamino Ruiz filed a claim against Whittier Union High School District on behalf of herself, her husband and her stepson.
Claim Written by Hand
The handwritten claim accuses California High School of negligence and asks for unspecified damages to pay for Richard's medical expenses, lost earnings and "other damages presently unknown." A damage claim is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a school district.
The couple have not hired a lawyer and they refuse to discuss the case, although Gamino Ruiz says she has no personal grudge against the school or the district.
She said she felt guilty "for about two minutes" when she considered the claim in the context of the community's generosity. Young Ruiz, she said, took it harder. "He was very upset when he found out," she said of the claim. "He didn't want us to do it."
Insurance policies protect Whittier Union against losses of up to $10 million, a district spokesman said.
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