Pepperdine student Naomi Munoz and her mother walked into the offices of the USC Medical Surgeons. Munoz’s difficulty swallowing food and frequent upset stomachs had progressively worsened since they began at age 14. Now 19 years old, she wanted to find out what was wrong.
A few weeks before the appointment, her mother had flown to Southern California from Klamath Falls, Ore., to take her for testing because the problems were so severe. After weeks of examinations on her stomach and esophagus, Munoz and her mother awaited the doctor’s diagnosis.
The doctor walked into the room, closed the door and sat down. He calmly said Munoz might have cancer. He explained that he would have to perform a total gastrectomy (a complete removal of the stomach) and a partial esophagectomy (the partial removal of the esophagus). The doctor had discovered an ulcer in her stomach that had caused the problems and wanted to perform the surgery before the ulcer could lead to cancer.
With tears welling up in her eyes, Munoz wondered how a 19-year-old girl could have cancer. Most people who have a gastrectomy are between the ages of 50 and 60. Her doctor said she would be the youngest patient he had seen with this disease.
A few weeks before the surgery, Munoz returned to her doctor’s office for the pre-surgery appointment. The doctor explained how he was going to operate — where he would cut and how he would remove her stomach, while she anxiously listened.
“And then you’ll put it back in?” Munoz managed to ask.
The doctor explained to Munoz that the removal of her stomach would be permanent — he wouldn’t be putting it back in. Munoz walked out of the doctor’s office and immediately called her mother.
“Guess what Mom,” she said after reaching her mom on the phone. “You know my stomach, they’re taking it out and they’re not putting it back in.”
After a lot of questioning and fear of life without a stomach, Munoz finally made the biggest decision of her life. She agreed to proceed with the surgery — she wanted to be healthy again.
Since the operation in April 2002, Munoz’s outlook on life has changed. She says has learned to physically function without a stomach, but has also found the strength to mentally overcome life’s challenges.
“My surgery definitely put new meaning into my life,” Munoz said. “Now climbing the corporate ladder is not as important to me as it used to be. Family is more important — and just being happy.”
Munoz, now a junior, returned to Pepperdine as a student last fall after taking a year of courses at a community college in Torrance, Calif. While she reunited with old friends and Alpha Phi sorority sisters from her freshman year, she also met a myriad of new faces on the Malibu campus. When new people ask her where she is from, she always answers with the same reply, “I’m a military brat, I’ll let you take your pick.” She then proceeds to name the list of places she once called home.
Munoz was born in the Philippines at Clark Air Force base where she lived for two years. After that her family moved to Las Vegas and lived there for seven years — the longest she has lived in any one place. During her time in Las Vegas her parents divorced, but her experience with the military did not end there.
As an adolescent she lived in Monterrey, Calif., for six months before moving to Panama because of her new step-father’s military assignments. Out of all the places she has lived, Munoz said her favorite was Panama.
“It was such a great place to be while I was there,” she said, referring to its tropical climate and culture. “I got to leave every summer to come back, so I got the best of both worlds.”
During her family’s travels around the world, Munoz developed close relationships with her family, which now consisted of mother, step-father, biological brother, two step-sisters and a half-sister. She says moving to and from various places gave them the opportunity to appreciate each other.
“The way I was raised, moving from place to place, you rely on your family for social structure,” she said.
After living in Abilene, Texas and attending high school in Oregon, Munoz made the move to Pepperdine and has lived in California ever since. Although she has already had many traveling experiences at only 20 years old, her desire to see the world hasn’t stopped.
While she is still following her dream of completing a business degree, she said she will take a detour from her original plans of merging into the business world after graduation to do something more adventurous — she wants to become a flight attendant.
“Becoming a successful businesswoman has always been Naomi’s dream,” her aunt Teresa Munoz said. “I believe someday she will become one, but I think maturing and experiencing life has changed her a little — Naomi has realized there’s a little more to life than school and work. She wants to have a little fun and experience more of life by traveling and seeing new and different things.”
Munoz said that through her surgery she has also learned to enjoy the simple, yet important things in life. Her priorities in life have changed and she is looking for ways to fulfill all of her dreams. Her appreciation of history has led her to consider a minor in the subject. Her passion for cooking Mexican food for her friends and sorority sisters has ignited a desire to eventually attend culinary school to become a chef. She would also someday like to own a restaurant, where she says she can incorporate her business skills as well as her love for cooking.
Along with a new outlook on life, Munoz says the surgery also helped her to keep a sense of humor.
“I told my family that I knew that at least now I’d be the life of the party because I’m the girl without the stomach,” she said. “I always made jokes about it.”
Munoz’s fascination with celebrities, boy craziness and love for fun and talking didn’t stop with her surgery. Her high school friend Kellie Johnston said Munoz impressed many people with how she handled the ordeal — with an upbeat personality.
“I think most people would be very disheartened if they found themselves in the position that Naomi was in with her illness, but she handled it with aplomb,” she said. “I don’t remember her ever saying ‘Oh damn, this sucks.’ She just said, ‘Oh well, I’ll get better.’ And she has.”
While recovering in the hospital, Munoz was never alone. Knowing her love of social interaction, many friends and members of her extended family visited her. Instead of relaxing in bed as ordered, she said she was later in pain from staying up to talk to all of her visitors. She says her nurses were surprised at how she was so cheerful and welcoming, even though she was in pain. She said she was just “trying to be the perfect host.”
Even during the late hours of night Munoz had a visitor — her mother was always by her side.
“She was there every night,” Munoz said. “I look up to her because of it. She’d sit there in a chair and we’d just talk.”
Munoz said three months of recovery time, eating through a feeding tube and now adjusting to a new eating regimen has challenged her. Now she must eat smaller portions of food six times a day because she has no stomach. The food travels from her esophagus to the intestine and is digested there. She said she misses eating her “comfort foods” — milk, cookies and ice cream — whenever she wants. She can only eat small amounts of such foods because the lactose from dairy products is especially difficult to digest for those without a stomach, so she buys lactose free products as often as possible.
“I’m supposed to be better off without my stomach, it’s different than I thought,” Munoz said. “But I’m able to eat again, so I’m happy with that.”
Despite the occasional frustration of her new lifestyle, Munoz says her surgery has reminded her to be adaptable. The weeks of initial testing and recovery time filled with tubes, monitors and IVs have given her a greater sensitivity for other people with serious illnesses.
“It’s given her a lot of strength, courage and the ability to enjoy life and not take it for granted,” friend and sorority sister Erica Quevedo said. “It’s given her the ability to just be happy with life.”
Above all, Munoz said it has reminded her to remain optimistic throughout life’s surprises.
“I know I can take a lot,” she said. “I’m a stronger person than I thought I was. Things that are scary aren’t as scary as they used to be.”
Submitted March 20, 2003