From the Summer 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
Recent Roosevelt University graduates and now engaged, Keisha Worthington (BA, ’10) and Rodrigo Martinez (BS, ’10) understand what it means to persevere.
Worthington, a cancer survivor who has been battling a disease called “graft vs. host” after a bone marrow transplant, and Martinez, a U.S. marine sergeant who did three tours of duty in Iraq before returning home to start his life anew, became inseparable while at Roosevelt University.
“He had my back while I was at Roosevelt,” said Worthington, 25, who has had difficulty breathing, and sometimes has to carry a portable oxygen tank as a result of graft vs. host, which has attacked her lungs.
“I knew she wouldn’t be strong enough to make it and that she needed my help,” said Martinez, 26, who drove Worthington to and from classes every day, took her to doctor appointments, picked up her medication, prepared her meals, and did her laundry and shopping.
Now the two are looking forward to new horizons as both will attend graduate school this fall. Martinez will be working toward an MBA in forensic accounting at Roosevelt while Worthington will be pursuing a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago.
“I’ve been gaining weight and I’ve been working on my breathing, but I don’t know how I would be where I’m at today without Rodrigo,” said Worthington, who in 2004 was forced to drop out of college in Ohio only a month after she’d started classes when she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
“I still help her before I go to work,” said Martinez, who landed a job as an auditor for the Audit Bureau of Circulations in Arlington Heights, Ill., immediately after graduating from Roosevelt. “But I worry that I won’t have as much time since I’m working full-time now. My hope and prayers are that she continues to improve and gets stronger and stronger,” he said.
The two met in 2006 shortly after Martinez returned from Iraq. He had just signed up for classes at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago where Worthington also was taking classes while living with her mother and awaiting a bone marrow transplant. To get through school, both took part-time jobs in the shoe department at J.C. Penney in the Ford City Mall in Chicago.
Worthington told Martinez about her illness and the chemotherapy and radiation treatments she was receiving. “I kept seeing her and after a few months, I started to like her more and more,” recalled Martinez.
However, in January 2007, Worthington was told the chemotherapy and radiation treatments weren’t working. She would have to have a bone-marrow transplant to survive. “That was the point when I decided to make a commitment to do all I could to help Keisha. She was the love of my life and I just wanted her to get better,” said Martinez.
For three months, Martinez spent every evening at Children’s Memorial Hospital where Worthington had her transplant and did her initial recovery. Since then, the two enrolled together at Roosevelt in 2008, graduated together two years later, and are now planning to marry.
“The cancer is gone, which I’m grateful for, but I’ve had a lot of post-transplant issues to deal with,” said Worthington. “I made the decision to battle and get my degree, and I couldn’t have done it without Rodrigo. I was given a second chance at life and I plan to make the best of it,” she said.
Worthington wants to become a counselor for children with cancer and their parents who face tough decisions as a result. Martinez would like to be a certified public accountant, possibly one day doing auditing for the Internal Revenue Service. “Now that I’ve come this far, I want to keep moving up with my life,” he said.
Just as they have done in the past, the two will try to spend time studying together this fall, lending one another support to get master’s degrees in their chosen fields. “She’s a strong person and very competitive. I can’t believe she’s gone through all of these treatments and setbacks, and she always gets better grades than me,” he said. Both Martinez and Worthington had grade point averages above 3.5 while at Roosevelt.
Since her transplant, Worthington and her mother, Angela, have been advocates for others becoming bone-marrow donors and they have made presentations at Chicago-area churches about the importance of signing up. Worthington also shared her experiences and talked about bone-marrow transplants on national television with Katie Couric of CBS News.
According to the National Bone Marrow Donor program, only 480,000 of those on their six million-plus registry are African American, at a time when the incidence of leukemia among African Americans and other minorities has been on the rise. Worthington believes her efforts to reach out and raise awareness about the issue in the African-American community have led hundreds to sign up to become bone-marrow donors.
“Keisha is one of the strongest, most determined people I know,” said Roosevelt University student Porsche Rucker, who first met Worthington in 2004 and roomed with her at Central State University in Ohio where Worthington first discovered she had leukemia.
“Keisha always was determined to get a degree and she’s always wanted to make sure her grades were perfect, and now she’s taking her dreams even further,” said Rucker, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Roosevelt. “When I came back to Chicago, I didn’t want to go to college anymore, and it was Keisha who convinced me to go back to school. She’s truly been an inspiration and helped motivate me to get my degree,” said Rucker.
“Roosevelt was the perfect school for me, and I’ll never forget the time I spent there,” said Worthington. Added Martinez: “It’s a dream come true that we made it through college together, and now we’re getting ready together once again to further our education. We’ll both be strong,” he predicted. “It’s the next big step in our lives.”
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