King’s Beach girl’s heroic story
November 30, 2009
KINGS BEACH, Calif. – Don’t think for a second Anna Ramirez wasn’t one of the toughest people you’d ever come across.
She could barely lift a water bottle in the hospital bed of her aunt Gloria Pecheco’s Kings Beach home just weeks before she died at the end of October. It seemed to weigh heavily on a frame which wouldn’t have been considered large even when filled out. Her voice was small, somewhere above a whisper, and she carefully stopped and started her sentences, balancing thought and communication with the pain of the cancer living inside her.
But that same small voice attested to her strength. She didn’t mumble or end her sentences in typical teenage fashion with a “You know?” Anna spoke directly, conveying her thoughts clearly and without any fluff.
The people who knew her all indicate this little girl from Kings Beach, dead at 17, held an inner toughness comparable to a prizefighter.
Anna wasn’t always laid up in that bed under the window of a small bedroom in her aunt’s home. The late North Tahoe senior outpaced her Spanish class during an outdoor hike once, despite walking with a knee replacement courtesy of osteosarcoma, the rare bone cancer which eventually took her life in late October.
Kristina McCart, a Spanish teacher at NTHS, remembers the story fondly.
Recommended Stories For You
“I was like girl slow down, you’re going faster than me,” McCart said, laughing.
Betsy Dobbins, a family friend of Anna’s, concurred.
“She walked faster than I do with two legs,” Dobbins said. “She was very responsible and very stubborn; she was a task master for herself. She gave hope for a lot of people.”
Born in Kings Beach and raised between the small Tahoe town and Reno, Anna was the oldest of four children including three younger brothers.
It stuck out that Anna, confined to bed and struggling to fight away the drowsiness brought on by massive levels of morphine, instead felt worry for her younger brothers, who are scattered, living with family members across Reno.
“I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like, and I think about them a lot, like are they OK,” Anna said a few weeks before she died. “If you think about our situation, I kind of feel responsible for them, to make sure they are OK.”
Anna’s lifelong best friend and North Tahoe High School classmate, Sarah Estrada, said Anna spoke of her brothers often.
“She wanted the best for them,” Estrada said.
The “situation” Anna referred to is her own way of talking about the fact her mother abandoned Anna shortly after her cancer diagnosis came at the age of 14. Relatives and friends say her mother walked out, Anna says she was deported – either way she spent the last three and half years of her daughter’s life in her native Mexico.
Saying the bigger person in the relationship isn’t hard to spot is sort of like saying Lake Tahoe is blue. Anna called her mother about a month before she died and forgave her. Forgave the fact she left her with her extended family, left them to care for a dying child. Forgave her for seperating Anna from her brothers and running out in a bind. Forgave it all, unconditionally.
The forgiveness showed a fidelity to her faith in God, say friends, a follow-though she’d already shown.
Anna promised to lay flowers at the shrine of the Virgen de Guadeloupe, a sacred place in Mexico honoring the Virgin Mary, and made a pilgrimage there last year, Dobbins said.
“She had a really strong faith,” Dobbins said. “She’d never been there and decided she would follow through on her promise, her faith was very important to her … I think she used it to help her cope.”
That sort of commitment extended to all facets of her life. McCart said Anna was a relentlessly commited student, even when she was confined to her home.
McCart said Anna’s cancer never held her from her schoolwork, was never an excuse for failing to do her best, even through unbearable pain.
“The thing that stood out to you was her perseverance, she never gave up on anything, ever,” McCart said. “She’d do all her work and it’d be perfect, even when she was studying from home. She took and passed her AP Spanish exam right after surgery because she was so diligent.”
At the beginning of her diagnosis in 2006 Anna didn’t go to school, citing pain stemming from tumors eating away at her leg, lungs and spinal cord.
But she studied at home and took pride in her abilities in math.
“I was going to graduate early,” Anna said.
Dobbins said Anna planned to attend college and to eventually work in medicine.
Confined to her bed, breathing through a tube, the last few months of Anna’s life took an obvious toll on her family and friends, who looked bleary-eyed while tending to her in the home.
Anna was dealt a tough hand. They don’t get tougher than a cancer diagnosis at 14, and late this summer the cancer spread beyond control in her leg. To extend her life, the leg had to go, said doctors in San Francisco. So Anna accepted the loss, she said, as just another fact of life with cancer.
When classmates voted her the homecoming queen this autumn, Anna was confined to a wheelchair because of the leg. She doesn’t have the typical ear-to-ear grin you see on a homecoming queen’s face, and looked rather sullen and slightly annoyed.
She said she wasn’t comfortable with all the attention.
“It was weird for me,” Anna said. “I didn’t like being in front of a crowd. I didn’t feel like being in front of people.”
Her friends say the embarrassment had less to do with her recently-amputated leg and more to do with her intrinsic nature.
“She wouldn’t want people to go out of their way for her,” Dobbins said.
Anna didn’t mind it, though, when friends and family thought to bring her candy and Slurpees from the local 7-Eleven – we all have our weaknesses.
Anna’s fondness for candy elicited eye rolls from her aunt and friends, a point of connection with someone suffering through something most find difficult to comprehend.
It’s a memory that brings a laugh to her friends – even in her physically weakened state, Anna wasn’t about to lose her sweet tooth, holding on to it with resolve.
She spoke of her physical discomfort – the anguish of losing her hair after rounds of chemo – but didn’t dwell on the topic.
“The physical appearance surprised me, and I feel really tired; the medication makes me feel nauseous,” Anna said. “I mainly miss just hanging out with my friends.”
According to friends, though, you never heard much complaining out of Anna. Despite the morphine which regularly induced sleep, despite spending much of each day on her back, dozing to the glow of the small TV set in the shared bedroom.
Estrada, Dobbins, her aunt and family members kept a constant vigil over Anna’s bedside throughout her last months, as she didn’t like being alone.
Estrada remembers a friend who rarely let on to the torrent taking place inside her body.
“She was always so happy and wanted to make others happy, too; that was important to her,” Estrada said. “She’d try not to show her emotions, what was going on with her.”
Brooke Costa, who works at the Rite Aid in Kings Beach and often dispensed medicine to Anna – for her and her predominantly Spanish-speaking family, whom she helped with her English – said you wouldn’t have known what faced Anna from the way she acted.
“She (didn’t) ever have a depressed tone; you wouldn’t have known from her voice,” Costa said.
It’s that sort of selfless strength her friends say makes them and her school stronger even in her death, and serves as an example to others.
“She was such a strong girl,” said Estrada. “Sometimes I still don’t believe she’s gone. She changed a lot of people.”
Anna’s picture crowns a small memorial in the office at North Tahoe High School. The picture sits on a poster, adorned by flowers, signatures and cards.
More than sadness, the bright scene reminds visitors of a missed friend, someone gone at too early an age.
Anna’s memory rallied her classmates at North Tahoe. In a miracle minute – an Oct. 28 fundraiser to help Anna’s family with funeral costs and to start a scholarship in her name – the school raised $1,800 in just 60 seconds.
Overall, the fund for Anna’s memory at the Bank of the West in Kings Beach has garnered more than $3,000.
The donations stand for the memory of Anna and the affection she inspired from her classmates. Affection for a fighter, a tough-as-nails warrior caught in a little body that couldn’t possibly keep up with her spirit.
“Meeting Anna was a rare opportunity to meet someone in life who inspires us,” Dobbins said.