Resilience in Action
Leading up GSU’s 2018 commencement, the GSU Newsroom is telling the stories of inspiring graduates. Jerry Davis El, soon to be a two-time GSU Social Work graduate, kicked off the series. This week, we are featuring Veteran Angel Sifuentes.
A broken back could have shattered the life of Governors State University (GSU) graduate student Angel Sifuentes.
The freak injury and a failed surgery led to permanent nerve damage and, ultimately, the loss of his thriving lighting business in 2009.
What Sifuentes has kept—a testament to his service in the U.S. Air Force— is remarkable resilience.
“I have to be,’’ said Sifuentes, a staff Sergeant who retired in 1993 after nearly a decade of service, mostly in the Air National Guard. “There’s a lot of good reasons to keep fighting besides my children and grandchildren and family—there’s society.’’
Now the president of the GSU Student Veterans Organization (SVO), Sifuentes is thankful for his time with the U.S. Air Force and the university’s Veterans Resource Center (VRC), which offers financial assistance and other critical support for the GSU’s more than 375-military connected students.
Ironically, he didn’t learn about GSU’s national ranking (two years in a row) as the “Best of the Best” by U.S. Veterans Magazine until well after he first enrolled. But it was a fellow soldier who told him about the Illinois Veterans Grant that he used to pay for classes, and asked him to lead the SVO, which he now counts as a passion.
“Veterans helping Veterans” is the GSU VRC motto silently playing in the background as Sifuentes talks about his dream to work with those who sacrificed for the nation. “The VRC offered me the opportunity to mobilize other student veterans and connect with veteran organizations … and establish my career after graduation.”
He’s already started. As a social work intern on the behavioral health unit at Silver Cross Hospital, Sifuentes says he sees flashes of what could have been as he talks with patients.
“I see people dealing with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation—substance abuse,’’ he said. “It breaks my heart. I see where I could have been.”
After Sifuentes returned from the service, he worked at a local grocer, and later started a business to add lighting to housing subdivisions that won regional beautification awards.
In 2007, Sifuentes’ life changed when he twisted to reach for a 6-gallon case of water at work. He heard a crack in his back, and felt nothing in his right leg for about 20 minutes.
He forced himself to walk after a short while, but didn’t seek medical attention until after a second incident in which his leg went totally numb.
Doctors recommended surgery but a reluctant Sifuentes opted for highly addictive opioids to calm the neuropathy. For nine months, he endured a drug haze, mood swings, and depression before making the difficult decision to stop taking the drugs. “I told my wife, ‘I’d rather be clear headed than pain free.’ ‘’
In 2008, he agreed to a surgery that would fuse his vertebrae. The procedure involves scraping out damaged discs, replacing them with plastic spacers, screwing the new fixture in place with rods. Patients lose a little mobility in their back but also experience relief from the pain—in most cases.
An equipment miscalculation, however, left Sifuentes worse off with permanent nerve damage. “They killed my (lower) right leg. All I can feel is my big toe."
Then that resilient smile creeps across his face, though he admits it took some work to get it back.
It was two years at home struggling with depression before he enrolled in clinical psychology classes at GSU.
Sifuentes chuckles when he talks about the irony of returning hpme from active duty only to be injured at work, and the difficult years leading up to GSU in 2011. “You have to laugh, and I never got angry – even after the surgery. My attitude was “God, he went to work that day to help me.’’
Sifuentes adopted that same helping attitude and breezed through clinical psychology classes with the help and support of professors Crystal Harris Blount and Maristela Zell.
He was excited to move on with his life and plunged right into a master’s program.
After graduation, Sifuentes is looking forward to working closely with soldiers in a counseling setting. “I want to work in behavioral health with veterans who struggle with PTSD and trauma. I want to give back.”
In the meantime, he is connecting with more veterans through the SVO by collaborating with outside organizations that serve veterans. He’s even enlisted his son who serves in the Army National Guard to support an Adopt a Solider Ruck March on May 27.
Sifuentes said GSU changed his life.
“Governors State, for me, was a life raft. It gave me somewhere to come and
find purpose again – a totally different direction that I never saw coming.”