Amelia Lechuga has helped thousands of people in her life.
Lechuga was the executive director of Spirit of Youth, a nonprofit that helped poor children in Victoria County and provided them with food, activities and mentorship. Through her work with area kids, Lechuga realized the need for a centralized food bank to offer families groceries to stock their pantries. Since then, the food bank Lechuga created in 1986 has evolved into the Food Bank of the Golden Crescent, which today operates a food pantry and distributes to 11 counties.
Now, Lechuga, 79, finds herself in a different role, needing help and support from her family and community after she suffered a massive stroke in January. After decades of helping others in need, asking for support is a place that Lechuga is not altogether comfortable with.
“She’s always been the giver and never the receiver, and it’s just a new role, a new situation,” said Cynthia Ruiz, Lechuga’s daughter.
In January, Ruiz found her mom collapsed in her Victoria home after she had suffered a stroke more than 15 hours earlier. By the time Lechuga arrived at the hospital, the critical window for stroke patients to receive effective clot-busting drugs had already passed. Lechuga’s Victoria doctors evaluated her with a CT scan, and said she had a good chance of survival and recommended she be transported via an air ambulance to a hospital in Houston for additional treatment. There, Lechuga had surgery to remove the clot that kept blood from flowing to her brain.
Lechuga suffered an ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke, which occurs when a blood clot or plaque blocks blood flow. Strokes can cause permanent brain damage and even death.
After a week in the hospital and three weeks in rehab, Lechuga has continued the steady road toward recovery, relearning how to talk, walk and even swallow. Immediately after the stroke, Lechuga said she was only able to mumble incoherently. Now, Lechuga is able to speak and move without her walker, an improvement that she credited with her willpower to get back to her independence.
But despite her impressive recovery, Lechuga still needs physical therapy three times a week, plus support to pay the medical costs that have accrued.
“I never thought I’d be in this position,” Lechuga said.
On Saturday, Lechuga’s family and friends are hosting a benefit to help raise money to defray the medical expenses. Lechuga’s helicopter flight to Houston, surgery, hospital stay, time in rehabilitation and ongoing physical therapy have resulted in hefty medical bills, even after insurance, said her son Adrian Funari.
Lechuga said it was hard to accept help after so many years of giving to others.
“She’s always been on that giving end, and now that it’s time to put the shoe on the other foot, to receive, it’s a lot for her,” Funari said.
Funari, Ruiz and their sister Jeanette Damato have all helped care for their mom since her stroke and remembered their mom’s tireless work to help others as they were growing up. Lechuga worked constantly to support Victoria’s children and help them thrive, Ruiz said. On top of her work with kids and the food bank, Lechuga has worked with the Salvation Army and had a part-time job at the resale shop benefiting Mid-Coast Family Services before her stroke.
Saturday’s benefit will include lunch, bingo, a live auction and more. The benefit will also have blood pressure checks so that those in attendance can check their blood pressure and learn more about strokes and stroke symptoms. Lechuga said she had no idea about the prevalence of strokes in the U.S., and that high blood pressure was one of the risk factors for a stroke. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death for Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After she recovers fully, Lechuga hopes to continue her tradition of giving back, she said. She wants to start a support group for stroke survivors and continue educating people about the risk factors for stroke.
For Lechuga, surviving and recovering from the stroke has made her realize that there’s more work for her to do to serve her community.
“There’s something else I still need to do,” she said.