Amazing Andrew: Graduation just another milestone

Andrew Cabatingan wheels heads back to his personal study room after his finite math class at Christopher High School. Andrew was diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia at six years old and became wheelchair dependent at age nine.

Holding out his ring finger with the mechanical nonchalance of someone who gets pricked by a needle five times a day, Andrew Cabatingan’s eyes widen at the momentary nip of pain.

It’s 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, which means it’s time for the diabetic Christopher High School senior to stop sifting through possible essay topics on carbon capture technologies or high volume water fracking. Andrew’s teaching aid, Ray Miranda, needs to check Andrew’s insulin levels.

“I’ve been taking your blood so many times, you should consider me a vampire, man,” jokes Miranda, leaning forward in his chair and fiddling with Andrew’s insulin pump.

The 44-year-old para-educator is Andrew’s constant companion during school hours, save for the daily half-hour breaks Miranda takes from 10:30 to 11 a.m., Mondays through Fridays.

Or, as Andrew puts it, “he ditches.”

After four years spent sitting through every class alongside Andrew at Gilroy High School and later CHS after it opened in 2009, “I’m filing for divorce as soon as he graduates,” Miranda retorts, sarcastically.

Today’s commencement ceremony at CHS mark a milestone for the wheelchair-bound, legally blind 18-year-old whose severe neuromuscular disease – which causes diabetes as a symptom – hasn’t stopped him from pursuing a higher education at UC Berkeley.

Recognized by his teachers as a “brilliant” pupil who rakes in straight A’s and always seems to be smiling (Andrew’s expression frequently relaxes into a big, pearly grin), the senior who loves the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon and molecular environmental biology with equal conviction, rocks the paradigm for what can be achieved when life hands you a bucket full of lemons.

Andrew was diagnosed at the age of 6 with a recessive hereditary, degenerative condition called Friedreich’s ataxia, which causes muscular incoordination, loss of balance, scoliosis, progressive damage to the nervous system, speech problems, diabetes, vision/hearing impairment and cardiac problems. Most people with Friedreich’s ataxia die in early adulthood if there is significant heart disease, while others with less-severe symptoms live much longer, according to the American Academy of Neurology.

But despite the gradual loss of mobility and the inability to read on his own, “he just gets it,” said CHS finite math teacher Bob Santos, remarking on Andrew’s acute ability to process complex equations.

CHS teacher Cheryl Osborne, who taught Andrew in her AP biology class last year, remembers how Andrew compensated “extremely well” by grasping complicated concepts just by listening.

“There’s nothing wrong with his brain,” she explained. “It’s just all the other things attached to it.”

The college dream: Making it happen

After seven years spent shuffling Andrew between different schools, dictating his homework assignments out loud every evening and helping their son apply to UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Merced and San Jose State University (Andrew was accepted into all four), parents Tony and Maria Cabatingan are facing another frustrating speed bump: Andrew might have to attend Gavilan College for one year prior to enrolling full-time at UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Residence Program.

“We chose Berkeley because they’ve been dealing with disabled kids for a long time,” said Maria, of UC Berkeley’s pioneering Disabled Students’ Program that has been around since 1962. “Then giving up Davis and hitting this roadblock” – her voice drifts.

While most freshmen suit up for college with a massive shopping spree at Target, Andrew’s situation is exponentially more complicated.

To live away from home while studying in Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Residence Program – the branch that caters to students with significant mobility impairments – he’ll require an arsenal of tools that will allow him to continue his education without the assistance of Miranda or his family. This includes a new power chair ($30,000), possibly a guide dog ($25,000), Supplemental Security Income, In-Home Support Services, a voice-operated GPS system and other specialized technology.

Getting everything together in time for the start of fall 2012 is the crucial linchpin.

Whereas individuals interested in the Disabled Students’ Program sometimes correspond with program staff several years in advance, “I wish I hadn’t just met (Andrew) a couple months ago,” said Kevin Shields, Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program Coordinator who only recently began working with the Cabatingans in March. “Realistically, it will be year before Andrew can go to Berkeley.”

It’s an exasperating situation for Maria, who gets the feeling Berkeley “would rather just deal with (Andrew) later, and that’s frustrating to me.”

While sharing in his wife’s discouragement, Tony Cabatingan’s joking asides put a lighthearted spin on an otherwise cumbersome journey.

“My suggestion is to put a sign on him that says, ‘Can you push me to my next class?” says Tony, shooting an affectionate smirk in his son’s direction.

Andrew glances away with a placating expression that says something like, “yep, that’s my dad.”

“He’s going to be there, whether it be this semester or next semester or next year,” Maria asserts. “Either way, he’s going. Right, Andrew?”

Parked in the living room of their Gilroy home and contentedly soaking up the conversation, Andrew responds with a “mmhmm.”

“As long as I can stay with him,” Tony interjects.

This proposal elicits an affirmative and diaphragmatic “No!” from Andrew.

The personality behind the smile

At first, the olive-skinned teen with dark curly hair and deep brown eyes comes off as the quiet, pensive type.

Described by his prom date as having a “great vibe and great energy,” however, Andrew’s clever sense of humor, fondness for waking up early and singing along to the theme song of whatever TV show he’s watching illuminate the personality behind the broad, silent smiles and thoughtful responses that sometimes take several seconds to formulate.

When asked if he’ll miss his family after he flies away from the nest, Andrew mulls it over for a minute before responding with a facetious answer.

“The only thing I’m nervous about leaving is my video games,” he says.

That, and perhaps his impressive cache of stuffed animals.

A teeming population of bears, tigers, penguins and other plush fauna engulf Andrew’s room, a dwelling festooned with SpongeBob SquarePants paraphernalia and a sign on the door reads “Andrew’s parking only; all others will be towed away.”

On the wall above Andrew’s bed, three whimsical drawings of penguins – artwork penned by Andrew before he lost most of his vision around the age of 10 – hang preserved in glass frames.

“Those were the last things he drew,” said Tony, staring at the colorful caricatures.

Tony grabbed a plush, tangerine-colored sea turtle off a nearby dresser and placed it on his son’s lap. Andrew hugged it tightly against his face, grinning like everything was right with the world.

“I would like to work with animals,” he said, when queried about his ideal career. “But not in a zoo. Those places are big, and I get lost easily.”

His interest in veterinary science and environmental biology goes hand-in-hand with a passion for nature conservation.

Maria describes Andrew as an unabashed “tree hugger,” which explains the neatly stacked piles of unused kindling and chopped logs collecting cobwebs outside the Cabatingan house on the corner of Wentz and Wren avenues.

“He doesn’t like it when I light fires, because he says it’s polluting,” said Tony, staring down at Andrew and shaking his head.

Still clutching the orange turtle, Andrew stared back unapologetically.

Between his ideals on environmentalism, a “demand to be on top of his studies” and “perfectionist” tendencies when it comes to getting his homework done, the CHS senior is decidedly too preoccupied to let something like a disease get in the way of his future.

When Maria first learned of her son’s condition all those years ago, contemplating the possible outcomes down the road “was too much,” she remembers. “But what else can you do?”

From his initial diagnoses at the age of 6, to the slowing of his speech and becoming completely wheelchair dependent at the age of 7, to losing most of his sight at the age of 10, the Cabatingans haven’t dwelled on Andrew’s limitations.

Rather, they celebrate his gifts.

While the question of how long it takes for Andrew to acquire everything he needs to be successful at UC Berkeley remains uncertain, he has one heck of a support system between his parents and a younger sister – Jessica, 16 – who says she’s “grateful” for her older brother.

“I told Andrew if he wants to do this, I will move on forward,” Maria resolved. “We will move on forward and see what happens.”

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