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.

"I was nervous about this and how I'd ever have enough time ... knowing just a fraction of the responsibilities we'd have if Cesar moved in," Rubio said. "It really was an act of faith ... and it became so much easier when we learned to really love Cesar."

The roommates help with virtually all of Ibanez's domestic needs — from cooking to personal hygiene.

Ibanez and his roommates had a hard time suppressing giggles when asked about helping Ibanez shower. The men take turns assisting Ibanez, and all admitted feeling a little awkward at first.

"I remember my first day being anxious, but Cesar is on the ball and he knows how to instruct and what to say to us," said Justice, a junior.

Soon, it became a routine full of lighthearted humor.

"The shower is pretty physical — there are no barriers, because there can't be"Ibanez said. "But the more you interact with the person that is helping you, the closer you get because it's an intimate moment. I know it sounds weird ... and we joke around a lot ... but we really have become closer."

Life with Ibanez isn't always lighthearted, though.

One night, when Ibanez was fighting a cold, his roommates awoke to find he could hardly breathe. They stayed by his side and administered medication until his strength came back.

"We've reached a point where we would drop anything to go to Cesar," junior Jake Christensen said.

The roommates are fearful of future nights like that. They're trying to raise money to buy a wheelchair-friendly van to transport Ibanez this winter, so he doesn't have to drive his wheelchair through the snow.

"It scares me seeing him go in the morning because I know how easily he could pick up a cold and it would have really big consequences," sophomore Gunner Christensen said. "That is why we need this van so quickly."

While living closer to campus could make things easier, Ibanez said he wants to stay with his roommates. His roommates say the same thing.

"After knowing Cesar for two semesters, I can honestly say that I love him like he's my brother," Jake Christensen said. "I can't think of a better way to start the day than waking up and helping someone. Cesar doesn't always greet you with a smile, but you always know he's grateful."

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