Independence High School math teacher Suzie Sittig congratulates senior Adrian Lopez on May 20, after he snagged his diploma at the school. Photo by Gary Herron.

It really wasn’t that long ago that Adrian Lopez was happily attending Rio Rancho High School, enjoying being part of the DECA program and, basically, enjoying a normal teen’s life.

In late 2018, though, his life took a turn for the worse.

Spoiler alert: Lopez was among the 67 graduates of Independence High School this month.

But there was a time less than two years ago that he was told if he hadn’t gone to a medical professional, he could have wound up with serious consequences.

His mother, Monica Carillo-Lopez, picks it up from there.

“In December of 2018, he just got really ill: lethargic, and he wanted to sleep all the time,” she said. “I took him in to his pediatrician; his blood sugar was close 500. He was put in an ICU and diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes a few weeks later.”

Recalled her son: “I noticed around Thanksgiving, I started dropping weight and losing appetite to eat anything, and I would get really sleepy and lethargic — it just became a norm for me. That’s when my mom started noticing, and asked what was wrong. I would say I was fine.

“One day, feeling weak, I went to my grandmother’s house. She made me food; I held it down, fell asleep and went to the doctor the next day. He said if I would’ve gone the next week (without medical attention), I would’ve ended up in a coma.”

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, Carillo-Lopez said: “There is a history of diabetes in the family. On my mother’s side, five of her siblings had Type 1; my grandfather passed away from complications at an early age.”

Her son’s life and illness are under control now.

Lopez said he uses insulin pens and two types of insulin a day, one long-term that lasts throughout the day and a short-term dose for when he eats. He counts his carbohydrates, and regulating that helped boost him “real fast.”

But what to do with his studies, being that he was a year and a half from graduation?

“On the onset of the illness, just being sick, he missed a lot of school and we didn’t know what was going on,” Monica said. “He fell behind and, with the hospital stint, fell even more behind.

“We decided to go to online school, and after almost a semester of online school, he decided he wanted to go back to a regular school – Rio Rancho,” she said. “We went to enroll him, but with the credits he was behind, (he needed a) full load of regular school and full load of night school. We decided that was too much for him and setting him up for failure.”

Independence to the rescue

“We went to Independence High School, talked to (Principal) Dr. (Sue) Carley, and set him up there,” Carillo-Lopez said. “A lot of people blame things on educators, but as a parent, I believe if a child doesn’t have an advocate for him to move him and make decisions, a lot of kids fall through the cracks.”

Her son wasn’t about to slip through a crack at IHS.

“He came to us for the 2019-20 school year,” Carley recalled. “I see that he attended an online school the year before, so he was home-schooled. At IHS, he did not have health issues that we had to deal with — he had the diabetes managed and did well with us. That’s a start!”

Better than that, it was a finish.

“A lot of people feel Independence is an alternative school. It’s not just for troubled kids; there’s a lot of great kids that are going through tough times and need that advocacy of a parent or adult to push them through that,” Carillo-Lopez said. “A student’s best advocate is a parent or an adult.”

Although Lopez had wanted to return to RRHS, where he had friends — some going back to his days at Puesta del Sol Elementary and Eagle Ridge Middle School — that rigorous schedule, coupled with managing his diabetes, made IHS a better choice.

Now, said his mother, who happily drove him to school to snag his diploma on May 20, “We’re very satisfied. Thank you to all the staff, especially Dr. Carley, at Independence — she is the perfect person for that job.”

“One of the things I really liked (at IHS) was the teachers; if they saw you struggling, they would make the effort and try to help you,” Lopez said. “At Rio Rancho High School, you would ask for help and they were too overwhelmed (because of class size).”

Along the way, he made new friends, easing his earlier fear. Among his classes were math, English and world and American history.

“Independence is not what everybody talks about — a bunch of kids that are drug dealers, troubled kids,” he said. “I would recommend it because there are smaller classes and the teachers give you individualized attention.”

Next stop: Central New Mexico Community College, where Lopez hopes to take culinary classes and become a chef.

That could be his recipe for success in a life that almost took a nasty turn some 18 months ago.