Community remembers José Vázquez Vinasco

Community remembers José Vázquez Vinasco

The photos on display showed a baby at his christening, a boy playing on a toy truck with his brother, and a young man in a high school hallway. In all, José Vázquez Vinasco was beaming.

Friends, family, teachers and doctors gathered together in the MLK Room on Monday, Jan. 14 to honor José, who passed away last month, in a memorial service called “Celebration of Life.” They recalled a young man of sharp humor, surpassing intelligence and great courage.

José was born and raised in Puerto Rico. At age 11, in 2005, he was diagnosed with leukemia. For two years he received treatment, but six months after that, the cancer came back. In 2009, he had his first bone marrow transplant, but six months later, he relapsed a second time.

Monica Vinasco, his mother, recalled a visit from Make-A-Wish Foundation representatives that occurred when they lived in Puerto Rico.

“They hadn’t met a kid who had read so much and was so studious,” she said. “So when they asked him, ‘Where do you want to go?’ He said he wanted to go to Santorini, in Greece, and they didn’t even know what that was.”

According to Vinasco, when the representatives returned, they turned down his request, not believing that a twelve-year-old would want to go to archeological ruins in Europe. Vinasco decided the family would vacation in Pompeii, Italy on their own because there weren’t the right hospitals in Greece. A week after having received chemotherapy, José climbed Mount Vesuvius.

According to Vinasco, the two moved to Brookline in early 2010 because there was no more treatment available in Puerto Rico. In May, he participated in a clinical trial in which he received a second bone marrow transplant.

According to Brookline Resilient Youth Team Clinical Coordinator Ray Feller, a bone marrow transplant is very sensitive; while it did save José from the leukemia, it also slowed his white blood cell production. BRYT Program Coordinator Annie Eagle said that it was clear by the fall of 2012 that his immune system was compromised, making him more susceptible to disease. On November 24, he contracted pneumonia. José was admitted to the hospital and passed away on December 11. He was 18.

According to Feller, José had been adamant that people know he had not died of cancer.

“He didn’t like cancer, and he wanted everyone to know he had beaten it, and that it had not won,” she said.

He was a sophomore when he moved to Brookline. Because he was in the hospital that spring, he was tutored by BRYT aide Nick Herbert. He was also in BRYT at the start of junior year, because he knew we would have to miss school for hospital visits.

At that time, Feller said that there was a lot of downtime in BRYT because José was on top of his homework and not many other students had joined the program. To fill the time, José and the staff played word games.

“He was really, really good, and really liked being good,” Feller said. “He would spend time destroying us at Scrabble, and when one of us would win, we would of course rub it in that we had won in return, but he was very well-practiced with words, which is impressive, too: He was playing Scrabble with English as his second language, and defeating an English major like myself.”

According to Eagle, while José was realistic about his health challenges, he never complained about them.

Despite José’s challenges Feller said that he came to school eager to learn.

“If there was a test coming up and people were saying, ‘Well, do you feel like you’re ready,’ he’d say, ‘Well, I beat cancer, I think I can handle a biology test,’” she said.

In the end, José earned a 4.0 GPA for his junior year, and Feller said he was proud of his success.

“He would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t get to pick up my grades. Can you look them up for me? And I think he really knew what they were, he just really wanted me to look at them. He would always get really amazing comments, and he worked really hard. He did just stellar,” Feller said.

According to Eagle, José also had a great sense of humor.

“He was an observer. Even if he was just in our room, doing work, I could tell that he was looking around, listening to conversations and he always had a witty comment for something,” she said. “If kids were getting stressed, he always had a funny sense about himself that sort of brought the pressure down.”

According to Eagle, José had to use a walker for a while. When he went to lunch, he would let kids ride on the walker as he pushed it down the cafeteria ramp.

“That was his sort of way of making the best of a situation,” Eagle said.

Vinasco said that her son had a very brave attitude throughout his sickness.

“He decided it was not going to kill him. And he just marched on, went back to school,” she said.

Eagle said he was both honest and hopeful about his condition.

“He fought until the very end,” she said. “He wasn’t in denial about what was happening, but I think he was very realistic about what may happen.”

According to Vinasco and Feller, it was decided that a memorial would be held at the high school because José loved it.

“He wanted people to know him first as a good student and not as that kid with cancer,” Feller said.

At the memorial service, Dr. Brenton Mar, José’s primary oncologist, spoke as did José’s close friend junior Eliana Von Krusenstiern and José’s cousin Ronny Bachrach.

Herbert sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He was accompanied on the guitar by Rodrigo Vázquez Vinasco, José’s older brother, who studies at Berklee College of Music.

On one wall stretched a long piece of poster paper where classmates and teachers had written remembrances.

Feller said that she feels truly lucky to have known José.

“I think the consensus from everyone was we’re all really sad, but much happier having known him than if we hadn’t,” she said. “He gave something to everybody that he met and certainly gave a lot to me.”

Aaron Sege can be contacted at [email protected]