DOWNEY - Katy Sullivan was suddenly out of control, her titanium legs and prosthetic feet sending her sliding across the Barbara J. Riley Senior Center stage as the packed audience gasped during the Performing Arts of Rancho show last Friday night.But as she has done her entire life, Katy quickly turned trial into triumph, righting herself onto a chair and beginning her performance of "Over the Rainbow" as if nothing had happened. It was a momentary example of the challenges individuals with disabling conditions face each day, and like many of her fellow performers, Katy rose to the occasion. With Carlos Rios accompanying her on guitar, Katy dazzled the audience with her beautiful rendition of the classic movie song. Her voice soared, and when the last note left her throat, she high-fived her accompanist as the audience roared its approval. Katy came to Rancho several years ago as an outpatient suffering with severe back spasms. She not only found a cure at the world-renowned rehabilitation hospital, she found the love of her life in fellow Rancho patient Jay Cramer. Today, they are happily married and Jay is the Director of the Performing Arts of Rancho program. "When I was in unbelievable pain, Rancho was there for me," Katy says. "Then I met Jay, and my life changed forever." Katy is an established actress, having performed both in television series and on the stage. The Performing Arts was a bit different, however. "We have a very special camaraderie unlike anything I have experienced on the stage," she says. "Each of us have had major hurdles in our lives, and when you look at us together, we're a cast of miracles." Her husband Jay is an award-winning comedian who came to Rancho after sustaining a major spinal cord injury in a rock-climbing accident in Malibu. "I have been able to accomplish many of my dreams in life since my accident," Jay says. "But being director of the Performing Arts of Rancho is the greatest thing I have ever done in my life. To see the joy that each of the performers brings, despite the obstacles they have overcome, makes me so happy. And as the master of ceremonies of the show, I can look out in the audience and see the joy on their faces, too." Jay and Katy were just two of the 17 Rancho patients who made the "Walking On Sunshine - The Performing Arts of Rancho" an especially inspiring evening for those who attended the show. Each of the performers was a current or former Rancho patient that had overcome a catastrophic disabling illness or injury ranging from severe Rheumatoid Arthritis to polio to stroke to spinal cord injury. For many of these exceptional individuals, their Performing Arts performance was a key milestone in restoring their self-esteem on the road back to living an independent life in the community. Here are a few of their stories. Lydia Chavez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she was stricken with polio before her first birthday. She came to the United States in 1973 at age 25 and was soon at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, where her life began to improve. "Polio has placed many obstacles before me," she says. "Dealing with post-polio syndrome and complications such as asthma sometimes makes me feel like I am at my limit. But every time I think I can take no more, something magical happens. Now when I work on my ceramics in the Art of Rancho program, or prepare to sing in the Performing Arts program, I forget about the pain." Backed by mariachis, Lydia beamed as she sang "El Amor." "I feel such a part of the Rancho Los Amigos family," she said. "Not only has Rancho given me the best healthcare, it has nurtured my artistic soul." Lydia's fellow polio survivor Jesus Velasco was just 10 months old when he was stricken with the deadly disease. Polio severely affected both of his legs and arms. After he earned his high school diploma in San Francisco, he moved to Los Angeles in 2000. "A year later, I broke one of my legs in a fall and became an outpatient at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center," he said. "Thanks to the wonderful work of the staff, my leg has almost completely recovered." When he got to Los Angeles, he also began painting. "The Art of Rancho program has given me a great forum to show my work alongside the great artists of Rancho," he says. "And now I am also pursuing my love of singing by participating in the Performing Arts program." Jesus rolled onto the stage wearing a black hat and wowed the audience with his rendition of "Carta Perdita" "I never thought I would be able to sing in front of so many people, but I did it!," he said. " I loved hearing the applause from the audience. It was like a dream, and now I am moving on to the best years of my life." Clara Gayle Denson was diagnosed with polio at age three. Her polio went into remission as she reached her twenties, but in 1999 Clara found her condition suddenly worsening. She was referred to Rancho, where she was diagnosed with Post-Polio Syndrome. "I went into a very dark place inside myself for a long time," she says. "Fear and denial took hold of my body and spirit--my mind was consumed with not being able to control my life. Just as I thought my dreams of independence would be lost forever, the doctors and therapists at Rancho helped me learn to focus on what I can do, and not worry about what I can't do." As she performed "Let it Be", the audience was riveted by each clear and soulful note Clara sang. "Just like in the song, the Rancho team whispered words of wisdom to me as they helped my spirit overcome what polio had done to my body. And tonight, I have triumphed!" Elisa Vasquez has spent most of her adult life battling the ravages of severe Rheumatoid Arthritis. She has been part of the Performing Arts program since 2003. "Not only is Rancho where I receive my outpatient treatment, it is also a place where I have come to know many beautiful doctors, nurses and therapists," she says. Elisa was backed by mariachis as she sang "Su Acaso No Regreso" in Friday night's show. "I love entertaining the crowd at the show, but my favorite part of the program is getting together with everyone for our rehearsals," she says. "I have made many new friends at Rancho, and I am always amazed at how many Rancho employees volunteer their time to make the show possible for us." In addition to hundreds of volunteer hours from Rancho staff, the Performing Arts of Rancho Program is fully funded by the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation. "It gives all of us at Rancho great satisfaction to witness the incredible accomplishments of the artists as the show gets better and better each and every year," says Foundation President Gene Klow. "We are very appreciative of the dedication of our performing artists," says Rancho Chief of Occupational and Recreation Therapy Bertha Cabral. "All the clinicians at Rancho support these dedicated and courageous performers, and we are very proud to be associated with each of them." One special audience favorite this year was Jerry Cavazos, a noted saxophonist who suffered a devastating stroke a few years ago. "When I had the stroke, I thought my life was over," he says. "I arrived at Rancho flat on my back and unable to move, let alone manage my life." "I had been playing the sax professionally since I was 14," he says. "I played with the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, VIPs, El Chicano and the Midniters. I even performed "Angel Baby" with Rosie and the Originals." Several of his original Latin jazz pieces were nominated for Grammys. His horn was his life. Although he had little hope that he would ever play again, his Rancho treatment team believed in him. And as he worked hard day after day, the impossible suddenly came into view…perhaps he could learn to play the saxophone using just his left hand! Last Friday, Jerry elected to try to not only to play his saxophone one-handed, but to raise the degree of difficulty even higher by playing standing up instead of seated. "I wasn't sure I could do it, because I am still working on getting my balance all the way back, but I felt I should not be afraid to try." Jerry played "Nature Boy" for the audience…just a man and his sax, with no band to back him, with no therapist to catch him if he fell. But he didn't fall. He blew every note perfectly…trembling, even stumbling once, but somehow staying on his feet. As he finished, a giant smile broke out across his face and the audience went wild. "I felt great out there," he said. "Now there is a purpose for my life and performing in this show is a big part of that purpose. I wanted to give it my all, and I did!" As the entire cast donned sunglasses and performed a raucous version of the evening's title song, the audience stood and applauded for several minutes. Then as people streamed out into the freezing rain outside the Barbara J. Riley facility, they seemed not even to notice the raindrops. They seemed to be wrapped in an inspirational halo provided by the Performing Arts of Rancho. After all, they were walking on sunshine. For more information, call the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation at (562) 401-7053 or visit www.rancho.org.
********** Published: March 3, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 46