Eduardo Garcia wore his maroon Northridge High School graduation cap and gown on Friday afternoon.
But the 18-year-old Greeley resident wasn’t with his classmates earlier in the day at District 6 Stadium for the school’s 19th annual commencement.
Instead, Garcia received his diploma from school district superintendent Deirdre Pilch in a lobby of a North Colorado Medical Center building in Greeley.
“Now that I got to experience this, I’m definitely not disappointed,” Garcia said.
After finishing a cancer treatment late Friday afternoon, Garcia exited a room at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center on 15th Street and walked down a hallway lined with cancer center staff, other employees of the Banner health system and a few representatives from Greeley-Evans School District 6.
They were there for a short but sweet surprise graduation for Garcia, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December and has endured treatments through COVID-19 and his last few months of high school.
Garcia has about five weeks of treatments remaining. He said his prognosis is favorable for full recovery. Testicular cancer is most frequently diagnosed in men ages 20-34 and has a 95% five-year relative survival rate, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“My mom told me there was a surprise for me,” Garcia said. “I didn’t know there were going to be as many people here to cheer me on. It means a lot to me. It makes me feel as if it was a true graduation.”
Many of those who gathered to honor Garcia held balloons, both graduation-themed or in Northridge’s school colors of maroon and navy. They applauded as he walked between them to meet Pilch, who wore her black academic robe.
“Pomp and Circumstance,” the traditional graduation march, played on the center public address system as Garcia made the short walk toward Pilch. Cruz Garcia, Eduardo’s mother, and District 6 assistant superintendents Stacie Datteri and Anthony Asmus were on one side of Pilch.
“He really wanted to be at graduation,” Cruz Garcia said. “Today was a big day.”
A large cake decorated with white frosting sat on a cart near Pilch in the center of the room. Northridge Grizzlies signs were affixed to walls in the lobby, and the staff greeted Garcia after the gathering to give him the balloons. With the signs and balloons, Garcia posed for pictures with his mother, cancer staff and Pilch.
“It was a privilege and an honor to be able to present Eduardo with his diploma today,” Pilch said in a text message. “I am so sorry he wasn’t able to be at graduation, but his health must come first. When I heard that the staff was organizing this incredible celebration, I left another graduation as soon as I could to be there. I am so grateful for the staff at NCMC for putting this together. They are amazing.”
The one-man graduation was initiated by cancer center nurses Leann Meikle and Wendy Fields, who’ve worked with Garcia through his treatments.
Meikle said she knew Garcia was graduating soon, but didn’t know Friday was the scheduled day. When Garcia mentioned the Northridge ceremony was earlier in the day, Meikle said her first thought was to arrange for the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
“I have a son who’s graduating, and it’s a special time,” Meikle said.
Meikle said she spoke with Fields, who suggested getting in touch with others who could facilitate their idea to honor Garcia. Fields described Garcia as a quiet and humble young man who hasn’t complained through his treatments. He continues to push through any discomfort. He said he’s experienced some nausea, but overall he’s felt “pretty well.”
“We didn’t know he was unable to attend graduation this morning,” Fields said. “We took it upon ourselves to make him feel special.”
Meikle and Fields reached out to Banner Health Chief Operating Officer Wendy Sparks on what they could do for Garcia. Sparks is the health system’s COO for northern Colorado.
After a few phone calls, plans were in motion — right down to the congratulatory cake.
“It was awesome to see them working together as a team like that,” said Erin Scarborough, a registered nurse and associate director with the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “It reminds you what nursing is all about.”