By Edwin Folven, 4/19/2012
Fairfax High school junior Jose Chojolan had many friends on campus, including both students and teachers. Now, after a life-changing medical emergency left him paralyzed from the neck down, Chojolan has many more friends, as he has received an outpouring of support from the community, mostly from people he has never met.
Chojolan had been suffering pain and numbness in his back for several weeks when in January, the pain became so bad that he had to be rushed to the hospital by paramedics. Doctors found a blood clot in his neck, and performed emergency surgery. Delfino Chojolan, Jose’s older brother, said it is not known what caused the blood clot in Jose’s neck, and it is uncertain whether anything could have been done to prevent his brother’s paralysis. Delfino said it is unclear whether there was any medical negligence, but the family hasn’t ruled out filing a future lawsuit.
“He had a few back pains before, but nobody thought it was anything serious,” Delfino said. “On January 13, he was in a lot of pain and said he needed to go to the hospital. They found coagulated blood on the back of his neck. Nobody knows what caused it. It came out of nowhere.”
Jose’s paralysis has left his family struggling to care for him, and many people wanted to help. An enormous amount of support has been generated through an effort by Jennie Jackson, his marine biology teacher at Fairfax High School.
“He was such a good student, and he was determined to go to college,” Jackson said. “Everybody was so upset by what happened. Everybody just wanted to help.”
Jackson and the Fairfax High student body started raising money through bake sales and other campus fundraisers, but the turning point, according to Jackson, was when she contacted Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote about Chojolan’s plight in a column published March 28. Jackson said the next day she had 120 letters in her school mailbox from people pledging support, many including checks. By the following Monday, she received another 400 letters, and they keep coming every day.
So far, more than $70,000 has been raised for the Chojolan family, who have worked with lawyers at Bet Tzedek in the Fairfax District to establish a trust fund for Jose. Delfino said Jose does not want to speak publicly about the situation, but added that his brother is now more optimistic about the future. The donations have allowed Jose and his mother to move into an apartment in Hollywood that has wheelchair access. However, the search is ongoing for housing that can accommodate the entire family, including Jose, his mother, two brothers and a sister. Delfino said he and his other siblings are living in the family’s original apartment in Hollywood because there is not enough room for everybody with Jose and his mother in the new unit. He stressed that the family is deeply grateful for the donations and outpouring of support, and said it has made a difference in their lives.
“It means a lot to us. We never thought it would be like this,” Delfino Chojolan said. “At first Jose didn’t want anybody to know and we were struggling with everything by ourselves. Without the support, I don’t know how things would have worked out.”
Jackson added she has also been impacted by the support shown to the family. Donations have ranged from a few dollars to $5,000.
“People are saying they were touched by the story, and many are just sending what they can,” Jackson said. “Our goal is to find a place where Jose and his family can be together. We are doing our best to keep him in this community, the community that has shown so much help and love.”
Jackson said she always had a bond with Jose, who was part of the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program at the school, which helps prepare students for college.
“He knew as a ninth grade boy that he wanted to go to a four-year university, and that he was willing to work hard to get there,” Jackson said. “I remember him writing an emotional two-page letter to me when he thought that budget cuts were threatening the program. In the letter, he told me how important AVID was to him, and how he would do whatever it took to fight back and keep the program. It just shows what kind of a student he was, shy and quiet, but incredibly thoughtful, intelligent, and sincere.”
Jackson will continue to raise support for Jose, and on and off-campus events are currently being planned. The owner of Chick-fil-A in Hollywood, who learned about Jose’s plight from Fairfax students who work at the restaurant, is planning a fundraiser on May 11 where 25 percent of profits will be donated to Jose. Fairfax High plans to host the “Fabulous Fairfax Follies” on May 4, featuring alumni, teachers and students. A live band will perform from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., with the follies on stage from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. For information, call (323)370-1062. Donations can be sent for Jose’s family, with checks made out to Delfino Chojolan and sent in care of Jennie Jackson, Fairfax High School, 7850 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046.