A debilitating accident, unemployment and fears of burdening his young family led to despair for Derek Sanchez. In the end, it came down to a choice.
By Lee Rasizer, CCA Public Relations Coordinator
A challenge, one of friendly provocation, initially brought Derek Sanchez to Community College of Aurora.You ever have somebody say, ‘I double-dog dare you’” Sanchez explained of his unlikely entry into college as a middle-aged man with only periodic thoughts of resuming his education. “That’s pretty much what it was.”
But ultimately it was the challenges of his life that forced his hand as much as someone tweaking his prideful side.
Sanchez not long ago had lived what he passionately considered the good life: newly married; child on the way; a steady job at United Airlines; certification as a licensed electrician.
Then, a horrible motorcycle accident became his life’s pivot point.
His idyllic existence had become a shambles, comprised of a painful recovery lasting more than two years, a string of short-lived jobs and unemployment checks.
It was August 2010 when his phone rang. That simple noise wasn’t heard much back then. Sanchez recalled sending out 55 resumes and getting only three rejection letters at the time, with zero callbacks.
He had an infant daughter that he raised daily and while it kept him going emotionally, his own physical well-being was being placed in jeopardy by a lack of money.
“I pictured my life as being a freight train running towards a brick wall on the side of the mountain,” Sanchez remembered candidly. “And I didn’t know what distance I was away from it before the train wreck.”
So, when the son of his best friend told him he was enrolling at CCA and that Sanchez should join him, he didn’t have much to lose by answering the challenge. He was unsure what he’d study. But it beat passing the time, which essentially what he was doing.
Sanchez thought about law enforcement, which fed into his childhood fascination with cops and robbers. But because he enrolled late for his first fall semester, most classes that piqued his interest were filled and he was forced to take all online courses.
“In the first two weeks, I had to talk myself out of quitting I can’t even count the times,” he said. “What am I trying to do? How am I going to do this?”
A ride-along with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department and observation of a courtroom trial that were class assignments through CCCOnline a few weeks later changed everything.
“That was something that just made the light go off in my head.”
Two years later, Sanchez finds himself one course shy of earning an associate of arts degree in December. And, following an intensive month-long training academy, he’ll do so having become a peace officer for the state of Colorado.
“If it hadn’t been for CCA, I’d be working at a convenience store,” he said. “This school has not only reshaped my thinking, but the direction of my life.”
But first, there would be a phone call equally impactful in Sanchez’s life, which served as a painful metaphor for the life-altering trajectory he’d be forced to face before he found education salvation.
Sanchez literally was sliding down Interstate 70 as he shouted into his Bluetooth to a 911 dispatcher that he’d been struck on his motorcycle. He was thrust from about 60 mph on his motorcycle onto the seat of his pants after a vehicle cut across three lines, crossed the double white line and locked its brakes, launching him as he rear-ended the car.
Sanchez never lost consciousness while he slithered helplessly down the highway, even as his ankle turned 90 degrees from being broken in nine places and with his shoulder touching his cheek due to a shattered collarbone.
“I thought pretty much my life as I knew it was over.”
For more than 18 months, it was, at least as he’d known it.
Ten minutes before the accident, Sanchez’s life was “fantastic.” His job with United led to a jet-set romance with his new bride, Melissa. The news that their baby was on the way was shocking in that neither was supposed to be able to have children. He’d been an electrician for 15 years and loved the profession.
“I had just wooed my wife and told her how wonderful life was going to be in Colorado and how we’d ride off into the sunset on the motorcycle.”
But now the bike and his body were wrecked. They weren’t sharing a motorcycle seat but a hospital bed, as Melissa lie beside Derek for months during what at times was a brutal recovery.
“I could have been confined to a wheelchair. They weren’t certain I’d keep my leg from the ankle down, basically my foot,” Sanchez recounted. “They were waiting to see if the surgery was a success and blood flow had returned. I had a lot of damage all the way down my right body. So they really weren’t certain with the muscle and nerve damage what was going to go on. So, that point in life was pretty dark. I really didn’t know what to expect.”
Melissa frequently would have to change dressings on a softball-sized patch on Derek’s leg that would create intolerable pain when the wrapping was removed.
Eventually, his orthopedic work became home therapy. He did more than persevere. It got him back on his feet.
“It was painful. I’m not going to say it wasn’t. It was excruciating. But I didn’t want to be a guy who just sat in a wheelchair,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t want to be a dead weight to my new wife and daughter.
The physical discomfort was only heightened when he was furloughed by United. Because it wasn’t a worker’s compensation case and his accident occurred off the job, the medical bills were piling up. The people of United, though, rallied around him, donating their vacation time and working extra hours to help cover many of his expenses.
What may be considered another rare positive to being confined to home was that Sanchez was able to spend quality time daily with his daughter during her formative years. But once he was physically able to work, he was having trouble making it stick in a tight economy. He worked in a county weatherization program, at an aluminum factory, a short time at a bread factory. Those periods were measured in months, and he couldn’t return to his electrician’s job because no one was hiring.
An understanding mortgage company was the only thing between him and losing his house.
“Life stunk,” he said. “At one point we didn’t know where food was going to come from. There were days I didn’t eat so that my daughter could eat. I just didn’t say anything. I’d drink water or make tea, just to fill my stomach once a day, maybe. It took a lot, but it got to the point where I was broken and humbled.”
But getting “double-dog dared” was the thing to eventually pull him out of the doldrums.
Following his one semester taking online courses, he was able to get on campus and immediately began to appreciate the college experience.
Caring instructors helped push him along. And, in his second semester, he received an email from the TRiO scholarship program and forged a close bond with its director, Daniel Sandoval.
“That really turned my life around, not only in college but even in my personal life,” said Sanchez, who shifted his life’s plan and came to CCA at age 46. “It gave me encouragement that someone cared that much, because here’s a guy who’s never had an education beyond high school, came up digging ditches and running backhoes and all that. Who was I fooling with all these kids, 18, 19 or sometimes 16 years old?
“I joked at first with Daniel that these kids are like sharp knives and that I’d been put in the toolbox for a long time. I said I don’t know how to sharpen myself. He said, ‘We’ll work on that. You just do your part.’ ”
Sanchez did that and then some. He was awarded a Student Success Award for his classroom work and having overcoming obstacles. He currently owns a 3.9 grade point average in Criminal Justice as he prepares to walk on stage and grab his diploma in two months.
“He has a fierce work ethic. It’s pretty unreal,” Sandoval said. “He does not rest until projects are complete, until assignments are finished. I’ve gotten emails from him at 3 a.m. that he’s working on things. That’s the kind of student he is. He just doesn’t give up. He’s like a pit bull that lashes on to something and doesn’t let go and it’s helped that he’s got a great support system, led by his family.”
Sanchez’s recent life has been, as he described it, “orchestrated chaos.” His month-long schooling in a completely different field has been taxing both mentally and physically. He’s still healing, often wearing a lace-up boot that compresses his ankle.
He’s also completing his CCA degree at the same time while trying to continue keeping quality family time in the equation.
But, after what he’s experienced, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I wish I could name every single professor and put them on a plaque,” he said of the college’s impact the last two years. “I’ve had incredible instructors through CCA, and I’ve grown emotionally and spiritually by the way they led their classes.”
The train is back on the track, though instead of oblivion, it’s headed for a new life, which, by any measure, is a pretty daring move.
CAPTIONS: Derek Sanchez is happy now that his life is back on track, but his accident and rehabilitation (below) are chapters that will stick with him forever.