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Atwater High School valedictorian graduates making history and overcoming adversity

Atwater High School valedictorian graduates making history and overcoming adversity

After battling with an autoimmune disease and juvenile arthritis for most of her teen years, an 18-year-old Atwater High School student is graduating top of her class and moving on to UCLA in the fall. mvelez@mercedsun-star
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After battling with an autoimmune disease and juvenile arthritis for most of her teen years, an 18-year-old Atwater High School student is graduating top of her class and moving on to UCLA in the fall. mvelez@mercedsun-star

An Atwater High School student struggled for many years with an autoimmune disease and juvenile arthritis. She went through three major surgeries during high school and said, at times, she nearly gave up hope.

But on Thursday night she graduated first in her class.

Catrina Velarde, 18, moved from Clovis to Atwater her freshman year. She struggled with the adjustment. She struggled with her health. She said she “went through the most difficult moments here in Atwater.”

“I’m so happy to be here I don’t regret moving at all,” she told the Sun-Star Thursday. “I’m glad it’s here because I couldn’t of done it without the support.”

In eighth grade, Velarde was diagnosed with Ulcerative colitis,a disease that causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the digestive system, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The disease can lead to life-threatening complications, experts say. There is no cure for the disease but treatments can ease some symptoms, sometimes resulting in a long lasting remission.

During Velarde’s junior year she had three major surgeries at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera, she said. Her large intestine and colon had to be removed causing her to be hooked up to an MG tube and colostomy bag.

Despite being hooked up to tubes after her first surgery, Velarde started training a few months later for tennis season her junior year and became the first tennis player at Atwater High School to take home the Central California Conference Singles Tournament championship title.

“I didn’t think I would make it to finals,” Velarde said. “I probably had the best memories in tennis and with my team.”

Velarde either made it to the semifinals or finals in the Central California Conference all four years of high school.

Nathan Braga, a teacher and activities director at Atwater High School, said Velarde always is willing to volunteer to help with fundraisers and is somebody that her peers and adults can look up to.

“I didn’t have her in my class but she’s a kid I’ll never forget,” he said. “I’ve been in education for 15 years and she’s the nicest (kid) and has the kindest heart.”

During the course of her three surgeries, she often felt weak, fatigued and had to use a cane for walking. She lost weight, too, at one point dropping to 72 pounds.

“The pain was so difficult,” Velarde said. Sometimes she felt like giving up. The support and the prayers she got from others helped her stay positive.

“That meant so much to me,” Velarde said.

Velarde also has been living with juvenile arthritis that can be very painful on her joints and cause rashes, she said. After a recent doctor’s visit Velarde found out there’s a possibility she could grow out of the arthritis but it’s not a definite.

“The pain keeps me humble and I’ve learned a lot through the process,” she said.

After she was diagnosed, Velarde said she became a Christian and said that has helped her feel a strong sense of purpose in life.

“I’ve never spent my time so wisely,” she said.

Velarde plans to attend UCLA in the fall, where she’ll study molecular cellular and developmental biology. She eventually plans to attend medical school and become a general pediatric surgeon.

“Me experience as a patient has solidified that aspiration,” Velarde said. “That passion is strong now.”

Velarde also hopes to be able to work at Valley Children’s Hospital, because as a patient she “couldn’t imagine staying at any other hospital” and wants to make a difference in other people’s lives.

“I’m going to miss the people the most,” she said. “I want to come back to Atwater and give back to them.”

Monica Velez: 209-385-2486

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