Staff and faculty at Scotchtown Hills Elementary are rallying around fifth-grader Marisol Ramirez, honoring her for showing bravery during repeated surgeries, blood transfusions and chemotherapy after being born 10 years ago with a blocked small intestine and then, year's later, contracting lymphoma.
On Wednesday, Feb. 29, the school will sponsor an American Red Cross blood drive in honor of Marisol, from 2 to 8 p.m. in the school's art room.
The official sponsor of the blood drive is Aubrie Santuccio, a physical education teacher at the school.
"I am personally renting the space from the school," she explained. Once she contacted the Red Cross to assist her with staff and equipment, "we set a date and ran with it."
Santuccio said her original goal was to sign up 20 donors, but she already has 70 donors.
"The more the better," she said. "I am super excited."
Marisol's mother, Ingrid Ramirez, said that surgery to correct Marisol's blocked small intestine led to a condition called short gut syndrome. That meant that every time Marisol would eat, it would result in a direct trip to the bathroom.
"She couldn't absorb food. She grew up basically malnourished," Ramirez said.
One medical setback after another ensued, including liver damage. Then came a series of organ transplants, which were needed in order for Marisol to survive.
In 2009, when she was 8 years old, Marisol underwent successful surgery at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington to replace her liver, small intestine, pancreas and colon. If that wasn't enough of a challenge, in 2010 came a bout with lymphoma.
"She went through chemotherapy," Ramirez said, "and is in remission." But Ramirez added that in the wake of her daughter's surgeries, her immune system has been weakened, causing her platelets and blood count to plummet. Even warding off the common cold can be difficult for Marisol.
All blood collected at the school's blood drive will be used for those in need in the general community. At the same time, the Red Cross will be signing up those who wish to be organ donors.
"Without them (the organ donors), Marisol would not be here," her mother stated flatly.
'A true fighter'
Finding joy in the everyday is what Marisol lives for. She adores reading, drawing and coloring, especially using aqua, her absolute favorite hue; and tacos and Chicken McNuggets. She relishes splashing around the water at Fairland Aquatic Center, laughing at "Sponge Bob Square Pants" on TV, and playing hide and seek with her 5-year-old brother, Steven, who also attends Scotchtown Hills.
Given Marisol's delicate history, her parents have been forced to take steps to limit her physical movement. While the youngster is allowed to play outside, contact sports are strictly off the table.
And sleepovers in the homes of her classmates are prohibited. With Marisol juggling so many medications, her mom said, the host parents "wouldn't know what to do. It's hard to plan stuff."
Santuccio said that she has maintained an ongoing relationship with Marisol and her family. All the money made at the school's field day last year was turned over to the family.
"I just cannot imagine how they are able to continue on a day-to-day basis with such a positive attitude, knowing what Marisol and the rest of them are going through," she declared. "Marisol is always smiling, never complains and is a true inspiration. She is a true fighter."
"Oh, my gosh: Ms. Santuccio has done everything possible to help us," said Ramirez. "She's a blessing — an angel God sent to us."
Elda Molina, who attends Lifehouse Church, on Montgomery Street, with the Ramirez family, characterized Marisol as intelligent and mannerly, someone who "has faith that God is going to do something in her life." Molina said the church, which is affiliated with the Assembly of God denomination, has gone to great lengths to get the word out about the blood drive and how it will benefit the overall population.
All in all, it has been a tough journey for Marisol and her mother, a loan officer at Educational Systems Federal Credit Union in Greenbelt. Marisol's father is in the landscaping business.
"Out of the 10 years of her life," Ramirez said, "eight years have been spent in the hospital. Just from November 2010, until this month, the longest she has been home is one month."
Although the family has health insurance — the bill for a recent 12-day stay in the hospital totaled $500,000 — Marisol's over-the-counter medications aren't covered by insurance. The family, buoyed by their strong Christian faith, daily faces a harsh reality:
"We literally live out of our bags. Any moment, we can be back at the hospital," Ramirez said.
Striking a near-defiant pose in the face of her obstacles, Marisol has no intention of being anything less than naturally wide-eyed and curious. Along the path to adolescence and adulthood, she issued a dose of youthful wisdom, wrapped in sweet urgency: "It's so important to give blood to hospitals. That way, when kids need it, they can have it."
Marisol also encourages those who are old enough to donate organs, "because other kids need transplants."
The American Red Cross blood drive to honor Marisol Ramirez is Wednesday, Feb. 29, from 2 to 8 p.m. in the art room at Scotchtown Hills Elementary, 15950 Dorset Road. While walk-in donors are welcome, appointments are preferred. Call 301-497-3994 to schedule an appointment.