She’s a Survivor

It takes a lot of careful planning and energy for Gloria Rivera Rodriguez to handle a full-time job with irregular hours, a separate small business and frequent public-speaking dates, but she’s grateful for every crowded day. As community-relations coordinator of the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) — a state tax-collecting entity with involvement in river improvements projects — she works in a Southtownheadquarters building with access to the river. Asked if its atrium view reminds her to go with the flow, she laughs and says, “It should, but it’s always been my nature to sweat the small stuff.” Memories of an earlier experience are what remind her, a self-avowed perfectionist, to “take a step back and appreciate life.”

Almost 13 years ago, Rivera Rodriguez turned 25. “For no reason (other than family medical history), I told myself I should start watching what I eat, working out and taking better care of myself,” she says. Despite making positive changes, a few months later, she felt tired all the time. She had headaches and shortness of breath and lost stamina for her exercise regimen. One morning, while getting dressed for work, “I put a shirt on over my head and fell over on all fours,” she says. Thinking she was “just tired,” Rivera Rodriguez left a message at work that she needed another couple of hours of sleep, but she’d be in later. Waking up again a few hours later, she didn’t feel any better and after talking to her boss and sleeping a little longer, she decided to go to the emergency room at the nearest hospital. “They took me back for blood work, and when the results came in, they brought me a wheelchair,” says Rivera Rodriguez, who protested that she could walk. “The doctor told me, “We have never seen anyone with blood levels as low as yours walking around,'” she says. “That was it: They started hooking me up to machines — oxygen, an IV.” Blood tranfusions didn’t help much; after a bone-marrow biopsy, she was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of cancer that affects the body’s ability to produce healthy blood cells.

Then living in Tampa, Fla., Rivera Rodriguez received treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center, where she spent an estimated “75 to 80 percent of that first year (of illness) in the hospital.” While the chemotherapy she received could be administered on an outpatient basis, she suffered with infections and fever so severe that she was frequently taken into the intensive-care unit to be iced down and monitored. More than once, says Rivera Rodriguez, “My family was told I might not make it through the night.” After nearly three years of chemotherapy, she had an opportunity to move to San Antonio, where she could continue treatment and be closer to her Dallas-area family. After the move in 2001, she relapsed, was rediagnosed and advised that it was time to consider a bone-marrow transplant. After intensive chemotherapy to prepare her, “My doctor said they had found an eight-out-of-10 (donor) match,” she said. “It wasn’t perfect, but it looked like we’d have to go with that. Then, right at the last minute (before the transplant), they found a 10-out-of-10 match.” The donor had signed up on a registry 14 years before Rivera Rodriguez needed her and had moved several times, following her husband’s career in the military. When the donor was located, still healthy and willing to help, “It seemed like a miracle,” says Rivera Rodriguez. A year later at a donor-appreciation dinner held by Be the Match, a national marrow donor program, she was the keynote speaker. “I was asked to wait at the podium for a surprise,” she says. Her donor had been flown in from Salt Lake City, and when the two women met for the first time, “It was a very emotional moment,” says Rivera Rodriguez. “I was so blessed.”

Since the transplant eight years ago, she has remained well and become active in the local Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which she serves as the board member for marketing and outreach; and in Marrow Match, of which she is board president. “I never enjoyed public speaking,” says Rivera Rodriguez, “but I’m very comfortable telling my personal story. People apologize for asking me questions when they find out I’m a survivor, but I tell them I’m here to educate people on leukemia and what it’s like to be a patient.” The first thing she tells people who have been recently diagnosed is that “Attitude is everything. There were days when I thought I was not going to make it, and as much as my family and friends wanted to help, they could not do it for me. Whatever the doctors told me to do, I did it. There was no other choice.” Despite the long arc of her illness and recovery, Rivera Rodriguez has managed to forge not one but two thriving careers — at SARA, where she has worked for nine years, and in her own small business,SushiNow Catering. While growing up in DeSoto, south of Dallas, she says, “My ambitions changed often.” Because she liked to draw, she was attracted to fashion design, studying books on how to draw clothing. When she reached working age, Rivera Rodriguez gravitated toward jobs in retail jewelry.

“I thought I wanted to be designer of my own jewelry, so I started in sales at a mom-and-pop manufacturing jewelry store, thinking maybe they would teach me to make jewelry,” she says. The attitude she picked up from her employers, however, was that making jewelry was “a man’s world. I felt that they thought I couldn’t handle the heat or the chemicals.” Rivera Rodriguez polished and delivered the jewelry, then went into sales jobs with other jewelry companies, intending to learn all aspects of the business. Working in sales led her to other positions, with a closed-circuit TV company and at a hotel-reservations service, where as assistant to top-level executives, she had a lot of customer-service responsibilities. “In every position, I was doing outreach,” she says. She came to SARA in 2003 through a temporary employment agency and worked for her first six months as assistant to Suzanne Scott, then director of community relations and now general manager. After six months, Scott hired Rivera Rodriguez as a permanent assistant in community relations, where she acquired skills in scheduling, media relations and meeting planning.

Since then, she has been promoted twice and now designs SARA’s entire communications plan, serves as editor-in-chief of its “River Reach” newsletter, writes press releases, coordinates social media, sets up public meetings and is taking the lead on public relations for SARA’s West Side Creeks restoration project, a cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers that will bring the Alazan, Apache, Martinez and San Pedro Creeks back to a more natural state. The West Side project “takes the concept used in the Mission Reach restoration project south of downtown and applies it to those four creeks,” says Rivera Rodriguez, referring to tributaries of the San Antonio River that were concreted over for flood control decades ago. Still in progress, the Mission Reach project will bring “a quality riparian woodland ecosystem” with pedestrian trails and footbridges to an eight-mile stretch of the river, extending the River Walk to the south as the completed Museum Reach has to the north. Rivera Rodriguez says she has grown with the agency in her time there and notes that the public’s awareness of SARA’s work seems to have grown, too. At public events, she notes, “There’s a lot of interest in our “Be Watershed Wise’ campaign, teaching people what they can do in their own homes and yards to protect the San Antonio River watershed.” Another campaign, for low-impact development sustainability, takes SARA’s message to developers and construction companies, encouraging them to “develop environmentally friendly designs, to recognize how their projects affect the whole watershed.”

Many people, she says, don’t know that the San Antonio River is 240 miles long, running through several counties besides Bexar, and that SARA partners with city and county governments and the Corps of Engineers to make sure that “whatever happens here does not affect the rest of the river in a negative way.” Besides river improvements within San Antonio, SARA’s activities include running wastewater treatment plants, checking river water quality for its entire length and maintaining and operating locks. “We who live in San Antonio don’t typically think about our responsibility to the rest of the river,” she says. Though Rivera Rodriguez works some unusual hours at community events, for the past two years, she has managed simultaneously to grow her own business. Co-founded with her boyfriend, chef J.R. Carmona,SushiNow is an onsite catering service that brings an entertainment aspect to corporate and private parties. “We bring all our own equipment and prepare (the sushi) in front of the guests,” she says. “People can ask questions about the sushi as they see it being made.” The couple have been dating for four years; they met at a Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas board meeting in Austin. “I’m a member, and he and a friend were helping out with our booth,” she says. Later that evening, she went to a party at a friend’s house where Carmona was cooking dinner — not sushi but “a delicious chicken and asparagus,” she says, laughing. “I had never had sushi before I met him, but now I love it.”

Both she and Carmona plan to stay in their day jobs, and they are careful not to overload their catering schedules. They work well together, “even though we’re both perfectionists because we have different strengths,” she says. “His is creativity, and mine is administrative details.” At both her jobs, Rivera Rodriguez is “very much a planner — I’m the one with three or four notebooks going, and that has helped at every event.” It has been a long time since serious illness shadowed her life, but she holds on to the lessons of that experience. “Whatever decisions I make,” says Rivera Rodriguez, “I think about them more carefully and how they’ll affect me and the other people in my life. I try not to take anything for granted.”

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