BYU-I students band together to help roommate

By Nate Sunderland

Post Register

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27 2013 2:13 p.m. MST

In this photo taken on Nov. 9, 2013, a typical Saturday morning for Cesar Ibanez, right, and his friends and roommates consists of brunch called “There will be bacon” and some riddles or brain teasers provided by Ibanez. The group is playing “petals around the rose,” one of more than 200 games Ibanez has compiled.

AP Photo/The Idaho Post-Register, Monte LaOrange

REXBURG, Idaho — Love, devotion and selflessness are not descriptions typically associated with young college men.

If Hollywood, the news media and car insurance companies are any indication, the age group is better known for irresponsibility, recklessness and a tendency to think of themselves first.

But for a small group of 22- to 24-year-old BYU-Idaho students, there are no better words to describe the monumental task they have undertaken for their roommate dealing with disabilities, Cesar Ibanez.

Ibanez, a 28-year-old biology major, is a medical anomaly — a man with physical disabilities so severe that doctors twice told him that he wouldn't reach adulthood. Today, Ibanez is very much alive and dreaming about his future.

"That diagnosis is technically still there — if I get the flu or pneumonia or something serious, it could take me out," he said.

Ibanez suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The cells — or motor neurons — control the muscles that allow us to walk, breathe, swallow and control our arms, neck and head. As the neurons die, the muscles weaken and atrophy.

As a child growing up in Mexico, it was obvious something was wrong. Ibanez could walk, but very poorly. Doctors didn't know what was wrong with him.

It wasn't until age 10, when his family came to the United States, that doctors pinpointed the genetic abnormality and gave him his first grim diagnosis. He was placed in a motorized wheelchair.

Today, Ibanez has little to no control of his legs, and the other muscles throughout his body are very weak. He cannot dress himself, go to the bathroom, shower or even get out of bed on his own. There are days when he cannot lift his arms and when taking a single breath is a chore.

Despite such challenges, Ibanez left his home in Kennewick, Wash., to get an education at BYU-Idaho. He dreams of becoming a biophysicist and, eventually, curing his ailment.

College hasn't been easy. Ibanez stayed in an assisted-living home during his first semester. He was taken to classes in a bus provided by the university. But that was a temporary arrangement meant to help him find an apartment close to campus. He was unable to do so.

The university cannot continue to offer the shuttle in the long term because it is beyond the scope of its disability services, spokesman Marc Stevens said.

With the bus no longer an option, Ibanez gets bundled up and at 7 a.m. drives his wheelchair four blocks to campus. A major comfort is his roommates, who walk alongside him. They have brought some normalcy into his life, he said.

Like so many BYU-Idaho students, Ibanez met his future roommates at a LDS Church meeting. They were part of a social group that meets once a week.

"When I met Cesar, right off the bat I wanted to get to know him," sophomore Trevor Morrill said. "I'd never been around someone with a disability, and I wanted to know more about Cesar, what he's gone through in his life ... and I didn't want him to ever feel like he wasn't included."

The six young men —Gunner Christensen, Jeffrey Hansen, Trevor Rubio, Jacob Justice, Jake Christensen and Morrill — said Ibanez was always one of the funniest people in the room. The group became fast friends, which was why when Cesar's housing contact was up, they made him an unexpected offer.

"Jake insisted that I move in with him," Ibanez said.

The offer represented a massive commitment. Christensen and the others were offering to become his full-time caregivers for free, and with no experience. Several of the roommates had misgivings.

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