Douglas inspires teen with lupus
Amarissa Mauricio has always been a fan of U.S. women's gymnastics team star and Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas. "She is such an amazing person, and that's why I wanted to meet her, because she was in gymnastics and the Olympics and her story was kind of like mine," she said. "[She] went through a lot and wanted to quit, and she didn't."
Douglas' example inspired Amarissa, 13, through a life-threatening illness and months of treatment. And what Amarissa got from her wish with Douglas earlier this month was far more than time with an idol from her favorite sport. After the cameras left, Gabby's family reached out again.
"When we got back to the hotel, my mom got a text from [Douglas' family] saying that they wanted to have dinner with us, just us, no cameras. That was just amazing," Amarissa said.
"It made me feel really, really connected with them. It's like we've been friends for years," Amarissa said. "She's like a friend now, and her family's like family."
That weekend in Des Moines, Iowa, with Douglas was a long, long way from the horrible few months Amarissa spent fighting for her life in a hospital room last year.
In January 2013, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Conrad Nazar had been transferred from Wisconsin to a base on Puerto Rico. The rest of the family, including Amarissa's older siblings, Brandon Mauricio, 15, and Jenna Zepeda, 18, would join him.
That April, Amarissa started feeling weak to the point that she could not stand. The diagnosis was systemic lupus -- an autoimmune disease that can affect any part of the body and has no known cure.
"Instead of attacking all the bad things, it attacks all the good things and the bad takes over," explained her mother, Dyan Zepeda-Nazar. "It's an internal battle with your body."
Amarissa was fighting infections and an enlarged heart, but that wasn't the worst of it: Her kidneys were in stage 4 failure. For three days, she ran a fever of 105 degrees that refused to break even though she was surrounded by ice packs in her hospital bed.
"Everything was shutting down in front of us," her mother said. "How do you process that? You don't. You beg for your life to be taken before theirs."
What's more, Amarissa was old enough to know how serious her situation truly was.
"The worst part was when right in the middle of it I didn't think I was going to be able to get better," she said. "But my mom told me I should hang in there -- that I'm gonna get better."
"She looked at me and said 'I don't want to die,'" Dyan said. "So I told her, 'you have to fight.' And we prayed. We did a lot of praying. She had to make a decision. She decided to fight."
It was only after Amarissa spent 42 days in the hospital that she became stable enough to handle a six-month course of chemotherapy -- a treatment doctors use to bring the immune system back under control when lupus attacks the kidneys. In the midst of that treatment, the family moved to San Antonio, as the Army agreed to a one-year compassionate reassignment for Nazar. The move allowed him to reduce his travel to spend more time with his daughter, while putting them closer to family and a better treatment facility.
It was a full month after her last dose of chemo -- on Veterans Day -- before the family got the good news that the treatment had worked and the lupus-related symptoms were under control.
"I felt really good because I could do all the things again that I wanted to do," Amarissa said. "Of course it wasn't the same ... but for the most part, I did what I loved and it was just amazing."
When she was sick, Amarissa was told that she wouldn't be able to resume gymnastics. But she was able to start volunteering at an animal shelter in San Antonio, helping to take care of pets and domestic animals that have been lost, abandoned or rescued from abuse.
Late last month, when TV cameras arrived at the house, she thought they were there to do a story about her animal volunteer work. Instead, they were there to get her reaction to finding out her wish to meet Gabby Douglas was coming true.
"She's not one that really displays her emotions outside, whether they're good or bad. So when she watched the video and her voice squeaked, that was our sign that wow, she's excited," Amarissa's mom said. "And when you get the real reaction is when no one else is around and she pounces on you and wraps her arms around her you -- she was so, so excited to have the opportunity."
Given permission to do some gymnastics again, Amarissa was thrilled when the Olympic champion was waiting for her with matching leotards, "so we could be twins," Amarissa said.
"She spent hours teaching me routines," Amarissa said. "She showed me her bar routine, and she was so awesome.
"We went on the [balance] beam and tumbling track, and she taught me her Olympic floor dance routine. And she let me wear the grips that she wore during the Olympics on the uneven bars, that no one else has worn before."
Lunch with Douglas' family followed. "They were very down-to-earth, so friendly and kind," Amarissa said. "And then told me she wanted to see me tomorrow, too."
The next day, the two girls and their families convened at an art studio, where they split up into two groups and painted on canvases. Then came another surprise: Gabby asked Amarissa if she wanted to get in her car and come with her, just the two of them, to get their nails done.
For Amarissa and her parents, the experience of Amarissa's wish being granted, the sight of their daughter doing gymnastics moves she hadn't had the energy to try for the past 18 months and the kindness that Douglas' family showed them won't ever be forgotten. They're hoping the two families can stay in touch and remain friends.
"It means so much more than meeting a gymnast with Olympic gold medals," her mother said. 'It was seeing our daughter with somebody that she's inspired by. And it was seeing our daughter have hope through this individual. And it was seeing our daughter doing handstands and walking across a balance beam ... that we were told she would never be able to do again.
"So there's so much more than her meeting an inspiration. It was seeing her live again. And that's something I can't explain to anyone."