(Image from Go Fund Me page)

When she couldn’t be with her family, Talita Olivera De Paula adopted a new one: the staff at Edinburg Regional Medical Center.

The family of the 24-year-old native of São Paulo in Brazil couldn’t be there for her college graduation or at her bedside when she was recovering from spinal surgery. That’s when the Edinburg Regional staff stepped up.

“I was there without my family, and they turned into my family,” De Paula said of the nurses, physicians and physical therapist who helped her during her three-week recovery after spinal surgery at the Edinburg hospital on April 29.

Then, on May 22, she was discharged, and the floor threw De Paula a surprise graduation ceremony — one that celebrated her graduation from rehab in addition to her graduation from UTRGV.

At first, she was upset about having to wait until 5 p.m. to be discharged, when others were discharged at 9 a.m. Her nurses told her to hang on, and did a good job of keeping her celebration a secret.

She became suspicious when her nurses wanted to fix her hair and makeup. Later that afternoon, her physical therapist came in the room and asked her to video call her parents because a surprise was waiting for the both of them.

“When I opened the door, all my nurses and therapists were in the hallway,” she recalled. “There were decorations and graduation music was playing.”

De Paula said she was in tears when they led her to a room that had more decorations and a table with ice cream and cake.

“I have never had a surprise in my life,” she said. “This was the best.”

De Paula moved to the United States in 2016 to get a higher education. After a year at a community college in Iowa, she joined the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s volleyball team under a full scholarship. She said this was the opportunity of her dreams: being able to use her passion for playing volleyball to get a higher level of education, something her parents never had the chance to do.

Last Saturday, after UTRGV held its first virtual graduation ceremony, De Paula graduated with a bachelors in multidisciplinary studies, with minors in health, kinesiology and communications. De Paula is the first in her family to get a college degree.

She did not spend the last few weeks in the United States the way she would have wanted to, though.

De Paula has had back problems since she was a child. She was always the tallest among her peers, and a lot thinner than she should be for her height. De Paula developed scoliosis while growing up, which means that her spine curved in a way it isn’t supposed to. After volleyball games, she said her back would be in excruciating pain.

She also developed Scheuermann’s kyphosis, another upper spine condition that affects the shape of her back. Normally, that part of a person’s back should have a 50 degree curve — De Paula’s was 95 degrees.

So, in late April, when she finished school and her senior volleyball season, she immediately got spinal surgery.

On the day she was discharged and surprised with the celebration, her mother, father, sister and other family friends were watching it all unfold through the screen, and De Paulo said her mother was very thankful for how caring the hospital staff were to her daughter.

“When the whole ceremony finished, she told me that God sent these people to take care of me, that he never forgot about me,” she said.

Before the surgery, De Paula was 6 feet and 3 inches tall. Now, she is 6 feet and 5 inches tall. De Paula said that initially, she was worried about having surgery while her family was in another country.

“At first I thought, ‘Why was I having surgery when my family is not here?’” she said. “But then in my whole time there, I felt like I was not alone, not a single day.”

De Paula said she had a difficult time assimilating in the Rio Grande Valley, but the three weeks at the hospital made up for the three years she spent feeling out of place.

“I was always thinking about my country, and how I missed my home,” she said. “But in the three weeks that I was in the hospital, they made me feel so welcomed, more welcomed than I have in a long time.”

She was stunned by the kindness of her caretakers at the hospital during her entire stay there.

“Those people were angels that God put in my life to take care of me during that time,” she said. “With everything going on in the world, I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe they took the time to be that nice to me. I was around people who God sent to take care of me.”

De Paula has always wanted to study to be a physical therapist, and said her experience at Edinburg Regional solidified that goal.

Dr. Michael Lago, who cared for De Paula at Edinburg Regional, and is also associate professor of orthopedic surgery and pediatrics at UTRGV, said he is aware of De Paula’s hopes to become a physical therapist.

“What I want her to talk away with is to know that she could use her experiences to help others,” he said. “I hope that she sees that being in PT is not patting anyone on the back, it’s being a tyrant, pushing people to their limits. She was scared to get this treated for a long time, now she can be an advocate for others and encourage those who also have these problems.”

De Paula opened a Go Fund Me to help her cover her medical expenses, and the link to donate is: https://www.gofundme.com/f/ewc5by-my-scoliosis-surgery.