At 23 years old, Darian Caton has a wisdom well beyond her years – and an appreciation for the little things in life that many people take for granted.
She was a 13-year-old eighth grader at El Portal Middle School in October of 2010 when a seemingly normal Sunday turned in to a battle for her very life.
She was born with Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM), a congenital defect in her circulatory system.
“My AVM ruptured on October 10, 2010 (10-10-10) and caused me to have a hemorrhagic stroke. This affected the entire right side of my body,” said Darian, who now lives in Napa. “I was at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital where I had brain surgery and rehabilitation. My rehab included physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.”
The explanation may be succinct, but the journey back to health and wellness was anything but, as Darian defied the odds and battled her way to what today could be considered a pretty ‘normal’ life.
But she will never forget 10-10-10.
“It was a Sunday, like any other Sunday, we had gone to church at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, my family had come home, my mom (Amie) was making soup and my dad (Damien) was watching football,” Darian explained.
The teen – who had been voted as the eighth grade class president for El Portal – was in her room, working on some homework.
“I was lying on the ground doing homework but I had a headache so I decided to take a break,” she remembered. “I was lying down and every time I tried to get up, step with my right foot, I collapsed to the ground.”
Calling out for her parents, she said they came “rushing in because they heard the distress in my voice” and, after a few more failed attempts at trying to get up, Darian asked them to call 9-1-1, knowing something was drastically wrong.
She added that she had headaches as a child, but they usually were associated with physical activity like running, and her right side would sometimes go numb because of it.
This time, she said, she knew it was much worse than that.
“I was sweating profusely and they (parents) wanted me to drink water but my mouth couldn’t hold the water in,” Darian explained. “This time it was much more severe … something was not right.”
It was at that point that she passed out and, as her parents would later tell her, the ambulance arrived, she was taken to one hospital and then another – with an initial diagnosis of a brain tumor – but ultimately arrived at UCSF with the confirmation of the AVM rupture.
“It’s very rare that people have them,” Darian said of an AVM, “and even more rare that it ruptured. It basically was a brain bleed on the left hemisphere of my brain.”
It affected the right side of her body and after brain surgery, she faced the long road of recovery. She was in the ICU for three weeks after her brain surgery at UCSF, after initially having the pressure on her brain relieved during an operation at Madera Children’s Hospital.
“I feel so grateful to be alive,” Darian said.
Just starting her teen years when the AVM ruptured, she approached it as a challenge and was determined to come back stronger than ever. She spent two months in rehab, where she had to learn to walk and talk again.
The rupture also affected her right arm and hand, and she had to re-train herself to do everything left-handed, including writing.
“I had to adapt and use the left side of my body,” she said.
When she first woke up from the surgery, doctors prepared her parents for the possibility that she might never walk or talk again.
That, however, was not in Darian’s plan.
Through daily therapy, she learned to walk, talk, adapt and after starting in a wheelchair, progressing to a walker and finally a cane, she was determined to go back to school. She returned home on Dec. 23, a little more than two months after her brain surgery.
“I didn’t want to take that cane to school,” she said, noting that when she returned to school after Christmas break her eighth grade year, she walked on to campus under her own power.
She eased her way back in to school, first taking a few classes, Leadership with Ruth Gligorea, History with Greg Largent, Geometry with Nate Bartelink.
She was able to complete eighth grade and was chosen as the student speaker for the El Portal commencement ceremony.
Darian also pointed to April Adams, her homeschool teacher during that period, as being crucial to her success.
“She made such a huge impact on my life,” Darian said.
From El Portal, Darian thrived at Escalon High School – voted class president at each grade level, all four years, as well as taking part in FFA, the Peer Interaction Team and more, including working at Tom Hillier Ford. She also was chosen as Miss Escalon 2014, saying her surgery and subsequent recovery were “empowering” and provided the incentive to go after what she wanted.
“It definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things,” she said. “I didn’t really allow little things to get in my way.”
She also said the support of her classmates in the EHS Class of 2015 made those years a happy, memorable time and she also thanked the “community of Escalon for the love and support” over the years.
“My class, they were with me through the whole thing, they got me through that,” she said. “And the community has supported me.”
Her cousin, Nicholas Alvarado, was a big help to her as she returned to school and she said several other cousins and friends assisted in her journey in a variety of ways.
The part of her brain that was affected dealt with reading, comprehension, memory, speech – she basically had to learn everything all over again.
And now, with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Berkeley, Darian is already doing a post-baccalaureate program in speech-language pathology through San Diego State University.
“I will soon be applying to master’s programs to pursue a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. My goal is to become a speech therapist, and to work with pediatric stroke patients in the hospital setting,” she explained.
Darian said she always wanted to go “to a prestigious school” and Berkeley was the one she settled on at a young age.
She graduated this past May.
“It was a dream come true,” she said.
With her determination and drive, it’s likely just the first of many dreams she will fulfill.
“A huge part of my recovery has been the overwhelming support of the community of Escalon and my friends and family, especially my grandparents, Al and Carol Caton and Carl and Gwen Garcia, and my parents,” Darian summarized. “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this difficult and challenging time in my life without my faith and strong relationship with God.”