Girl finds break from hospital visits to glimpse dream of becoming a pilot

June 9, 2011 at 1:09 a.m.

Reyna Martinez, 12, looks out  the window of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk while the pilot, Steve Plunkett, preps for flight.

Reyna Martinez, 12, looks out the window of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk while the pilot, Steve Plunkett, preps for flight.

While Reyna Martinez posed for a picture by the airplane propeller, her parents looked on in awe.

"I can't believe she's that tall," said her father, Joel Rodriguez.

But Reyna's physical height was the least of what amazed the 12-year-old's parents. More impressive to them - and to the crew at Calhoun Air Center - was the height of Reyna's bravery, strength and positivity in the midst of soaring struggles.

On Jan. 15, Reyna's parents took her to the emergency room with migraine pain. Unexplained medical problems have compounded since, leaving the almost-teenager in so much pain, she sometimes couldn't make it through a full day at school.

"She has good days and bad days," her father said. "She turns every one into a good day, no matter what."

Reyna's frustrations culminated at the end of the school year, though, when it came time to go on the trip for which she had been preparing all year. A clarinet player at Patti Welder Magnet Middle School, Reyna was determined not to let being in a hospital bed keep her from going on the band's trip to Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

But a fever proved too devastating for the dainty girl's determination. She said she was most upset about going back to school to face her peers and hear about the fun she missed.

"I was stressed out about school and people finding out about what was wrong with me. I didn't want them to know all this stuff," Reyna said.

After having been referred to specialist after specialist, and still with no explanation about their daughter's illness, Reyna's parents were searching for anything to bring a little fun back into their child's life.

Reyna, the daredevil whose hands would have been in the air on those Six Flags roller coasters, had always wanted to be a pilot. So her parents took her to Wings of Freedom at the Victoria Regional Airport.

Reyna relished in exploring planes that day, but the family just couldn't swing the $75 it cost to take a flight.

The medical bills and endless trips to Austin just happened to come at a time of difficult transition for the family.

"A lot of times she'll say, 'I cost you too much money.' We say, 'No, it's not that.'" said her mother, Jo Ann Benavides.

Rodriguez had been laid off, and though he was only unemployed for two days, he had to wait four weeks to receive a paycheck half the size of his old one.

Benavides was working as many double shifts as possible at Citizens Medical Center, but most of her paycheck went right to insurance and medical payments.

They've held side jobs and sold their things, but most difficult was finding the humility to ask for help from family and friends.

"I guess it's a matter of pride for us. I had to learn to be gracious," Rodriguez said. "Asking for us has been a different thing. I find it really difficult, but I'm learning."

It's his little girl, the one Rodriguez said he raised to never be a victim, who's been the family's fortitude.

"We're very positive about the future, and we draw strength from each other in moments of weakness," Rodriguez said. "We probably shouldn't be drawing strength from this young lady right here, but she's the one who's been keeping us up."

Reyna deserved at least one carefree day, which is why family and friends helped hook up the family with the Calhoun Air Center.

On Saturday, the center offered a free flight to the family on a small, four-seater plane at the Victoria Regional Airport.

While her father joked about being scared to take flight, Reyna, totally appropriately, leaped into the driver's seat.

She had been quiet and somber when discussing the last few months, but after soaring over the family's Victoria home, then Port Lavaca and the bay, Reyna was a chatty kid again.

She was bursting with stories about when the pilot let her take over the controls, and she showed off the photos she took to prove to her friends she'd actually flown a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

The Six Flags roller coasters had nothing on that flight.

"It's just unexplainable. It's just a feeling that you cannot get anywhere besides being in a plane and flying," Reyna said.

She said her insides felt a whole different kind of sensation that day - a relief from the months of unexplainable pain.

"It's kinda hard to think about the pain. It's always there, but this takes over it," she said. "That little gut feeling that makes you excited - I think it's just really fun."

The family has a difficult few weeks ahead. They will decide whether Reyna will undergo spinal surgery recommended by an Austin physician.

Reyna's ready for it - ready to be healed so she can start taking flight lessons on her way to reaching her ultimate goal of being a commercial pilot.

Still pumped from the flight over the Crossroads, Reyna's dad said what seemed to everyone at the airport to be a given.

"You aren't going to be able to beat that, Reyna."

"Except when I fly you myself," she shot back.



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