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Spring Valley High students rally around teacher battling cancer

Updated February 20, 2020 - 12:14 pm

Jose Israel Ramirez Gamez is passionate about wanting to boost Spring Valley High School’s graduation rate.

So passionate that Gamez, who was told by an oncologist in December he might have six to nine months to live, emailed the school principal from the hospital asking if there was any work he could do. The answer: No. Rest and take care of yourself.

Gamez is battling a rare, aggressive form of adrenal cancer that affects only about one person in a million.

Spring Valley High seniors Ferhad Alic, 17, and Jose Urrutia-Lopez, 18, created a GoFundMe page in early January to help their teacher and his family with medical bills. As of Feb. 18, they’d raised $13,841 — from 316 donors — toward a $20,000 goal.

Students initiated the effort, which “evolved from their own passion and caring,” said Tam Larnerd, principal of the southwest Las Vegas school. “It’s just very heartening to see that kids are taking it upon themselves to help someone who has made a difference in their lives.”

The GoFundMe page is full of comments from current and past students — from Spring Valley High and Ánimo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood, California, where Gamez taught — about how Gamez has affected them.

Gamez has been teaching for about 15 years — eight of those at Spring Valley High. He teaches one section of math and spends the rest of his day as the school’s graduation advocate.

Following a weeklong hospital stay in January, he hasn’t yet been able to return to teaching. And he was hospitalized again on and off in February.

“I definitely want to thank God for the opportunity to be around,” Gamez told the Review-Journal on Feb. 7 by phone from Southern Hills Hospital & Medical Center.

Gamez said that despite his ordeal, “I’m very thankful to find out that students care about their teachers.”

‘Speaking from experience’

Alic and Urrutia-Lopez — who created the GoFundMe page — are both soccer players. Gamez was their coach, but he had to give up the position last year when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“He always checked up on us after that,” Alic said, adding that Gamez shares advice and life experiences. “He’s always been there for us.”

Alic described Gamez as a genuine, honest person who is “very helpful for all of his students.”

He said Gamez truly cares about students — especially those who are struggling academically or are from an immigrant background. “He’s so positive every day. He always motivates us to get better grades.”

Gamez shares his story with students and how he didn’t have the same opportunities they do. He said he tells them, “‘I’m speaking from experience. If I can do it, you guys can also do it.’”

It’s a message that resonates with Spring Valley High’s student body, where nearly 35 languages are represented.

Gamez came to the United States by himself as a 16-year-old. He experienced homelessness and washed dishes to make money. Eventually — after being pressured by his father — he went back to school and learned English, he said.

Alic said his teacher is a positive influence and has an inspiring story, adding, “We really love him and want to support him through a challenging time.”

Gamez said teaching is his passion. And when he talks about his life and the opportunity to be a teacher, he often uses the word “blessing.”

He’s married to his wife, Jacky, and has three sons: 1-year-old Max, 10-year-old Anton and 16-year-old Landen, who lives in California.

Family members in Mexico have also been calling him daily to make sure he’s OK and express how much they love him.

‘I can beat this’

Gamez was diagnosed with adrenal cancer 1 1/2 years ago.

“I have to be very special,” he said, to get this type of rare cancer. He told that to his oncologist and they laughed about it.

Gamez had two major surgeries, both in February 2019. The first one fell on his Anton’s birthday. They had planned to go to Disneyland.

He told Anton he wouldn’t be able to take him. His son’s response: “Yes, Dad, you’re going to get better,” Gamez recalls.

“He didn’t really care about Disneyland,” he said. “He just wanted me to be well and fine.”

During the first surgery — which lasted about four hours — the surgeon couldn’t proceed with removing Gamez’s tumor because it was up against a major artery and a cardiovascular doctor needed to be there.

The second surgery lasted about 11 hours, Gamez said, and he spent a couple of days after that in intensive care.

When he woke up, “the first face I saw there was (my) wife,” he said. “She’s always there for me.”

They held hands. “I felt so good,” Gamez said. “I felt like, ‘You know what? I can beat this.’”

He received radiation treatments over the summer. After more imaging tests, he was given the all-clear. No more cancer.

But in December, “that’s when I started feeling weird on the right-hand side on top of my kidney,” Gamez said. “I told my wife, ‘I just don’t feel right.’”

He found out in mid-December his tumor was back. His oncologist gave him a life expectancy of six to nine months.

“Right away, I said ‘No, that’s not going to be the case,’” Gamez said. He told the oncologist he wanted to fight it.

He asked what the next step would be. His oncologist told him it would be aggressive chemotherapy.

Gamez was in the midst of chemotherapy treatments when he spoke to the Review-Journal on Feb. 7.

“Things are going great,” he said. “It’s a good start. We have hope. We’re going to continue working as much as possible because this is a mental game I have to beat as well.”

But chemotherapy has been rough on his body, and an abnormal hemoglobin blood test result landed him back in the hospital. From his hospital bed on Feb. 7, Gamez said he was “sitting here” and “just trying to feel better.” And he was back in the hospital again later in February.

‘Like passion on steroids’

Gamez said he loves teaching, and helping students develop academically and socially.

He said students know he can be harsh on them and challenge them, but it’s because he cares.

“When you really care, I find, people will care about you,” he said.

As a teacher, Gamez helps teenagers think about math differently, Larnerd said, noting some students have told him they hated math until they had Gamez as a teacher.

“When you’re in his classroom, it’s like passion on steroids,” Larnerd said.

Gamez teaches one class period of math — college preparatory math — this school year. About 90 percent of his students are seniors. He said his goal is for students to enter college without having to take remedial math classes once they arrive.

And as Spring Valley High’s graduation advocate, Ramirez spends most of his days “trying to track down kids who’ve dropped out,” Larnerd said, including knocking on doors and talking with parents.

Gamez also helps students — particularly, seniors — who have a lot of remaining class credits to catch up on in order to graduate.

“For the most part, I’m very successful at it to bring kids back to school,” he said. “But there is failure, too. I have to tell you that, too. Sometimes, I don’t find where the kids are.”

But he pushes on, helping as many students as he can graduate and prepare for their future.

As for his battle with cancer, Gamez said it’s a learning experience. “It’s just one of the best lessons in life I’m going to go through.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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