Five people who inspired us in 2014

By overcoming their challenges, they showed us the meaning of resilience

Looking back on 2014, five people in Palo Alto exhibited traits that made them models for handling seemingly unimaginable adversity.

They include a mother who lost both arms and her child; a veteran who survived after giving up his spot in a lifeboat; students who took on Palo Alto's culture of perfectionism after a classmate's death; a Palo Alto fourth-grader with Down syndrome who is an advocate on behalf of people with disabilities; and a Palestinian boy who faced multiple surgeries in order to walk for the first time. Here are their stories.

Gehane Guirguis: Faith in the 'Hand of God'

The bus trip from her home in Cairo, Egypt, to the Red Sea was supposed to start a relaxing vacation for Gehane Guirguis. But a drug-fueled bus driver lost control and flipped the vehicle in July 2012, killing her 2 1/2-year-old daughter and severely maiming Guirguis.

Both arms were amputated above the elbows. Unable to care for herself, her husband closed his business to tend to her and their 5 1/2-year-old child.

But Guirguis, 37, was not bitter.

"This looks as if this is an extremely difficult life experience. Since the very, very beginning, we have felt God's presence. It doesn't feel as difficult because this is the act of God, and we are handling it with peace and resilience," she said.

Bay Area entrepreneur Sameh Michaiel heard of her plight and helped her receive prosthetic arms with the aid of dozens of Palo Alto and Mountain View medical professionals. They donated their time and facilities at little or no cost.

"She had nothing but gratitude. There was just a fire in her that you could see was driving her," said Charlie Kelly of Norell Prosthetics Orthotics in Mountain View, who helped to fit the new arms.

(See March 14 story, "Medical community rallies around injured Egyptian woman.")

Ned Gallagher: Selflessness and prayer

As a U.S. Marine and World War II veteran, Palo Altan Ned Gallagher survived a triple-torpedo hit on the USS Houston and 3 1/2 years in a Japanese prison camp.

As the warship sank off Java, Gallagher, an experienced swimmer, decided to forgo the crowded lifeboat, believing he had a better chance of making it to land than other shipmates. He swam for nine hours, he said.

A Japanese platoon eventually captured Gallagher and other survivors. They received barely more than a half-cup of insect-infested rice to eat each day, he said.

But the men often talked about food to survive. Gallagher kept hidden a tiny notebook in which he wrote down the best places and dishes his imprisoned mates remembered. And he got on his knees each day and prayed for their release, which finally came.

He has continued to pray every morning and night since.

"Because of his age, this year his doctor gave him special dispensation to get off his knees," his daughter Mary Gallagher told the Weekly.

(See July 4 story, "At 99 years old, Palo Altan recalls a ship's sinking.")

Palo Alto students: Courage to speak and reach out

When Gunn High School students received word of another classmate's death by suicide this year, they started a movement to urge the community to change its culture of perfectionism.

Gunn student Hayley Krolik wrote that Palo Alto needs to replace a culture that has led to excessive pressure to perform and sent the email to the parents of Gunn students, which was shared broadly. Ricky Shin, a Gunn junior, posted a raw essay about his own grieving to inspire others to also open up. And Gunn student Martha Cabot shared her thoughts and feelings in a YouTube video that immediately went viral.

Palo Alto High School students published an article in the school news website the Paly Voice to destigmatize counseling. An editorial focused on how the schools and community can improve their approach to mental health issues.

"I think spreading awareness (about pressure and students' well-being) is just really, really important because at the end of the day, that's what's going to actually make an impact. The more and more people who realize and care about it will come together and do something about it," Cabot told the Weekly.

(See Nov. 14 cover story, "In the wake: Teens respond with messages of hope, change.")

Dashiell Meier: An advocate for acceptance

Ohlone Elementary School fourth-grader Dashiell Meier has taken his message about living with Down syndrome to Sacramento, as well as to Washington, D.C.

Whether meeting with members of Congress or speaking to fellow Palo Alto elementary school students, Dashiell has worked to create a culture of acceptance and tolerance by educating people about why he's different. This year he won the Council for Exceptional Children's "Yes I Can!" Award for self-advocacy, a national honor.

Dashiell has been talking to his classmates about his disability since the first grade.

"It helps them know about me and what it's like to have Down syndrome," he said.

Others have taken notice.

"He doesn't let obstacles get in his way. He has this 'I can do everything everyone else can do' attitude," Ohlone language pathologist Cynthia Ehrhorn said.

Added Renee Alloy, a resource specialist: "What I've noticed has changed is social awareness of other conditions and children interacting where normally they would have been isolated. When he tells others how this has impacted him, I see them walking around on the playground arm in arm, arm over shoulder, playing games ... just being more accepting of a variety of differences that there are in our human culture."

(See Oct. 24 story, "Palo Alto fourth-grader with Down syndrome wins self-advocacy award.")

Hadi Abukhadra: Endurance and a smile

He is a champ. Despite the pain, Hadi Abukhadra handled the multiple surgeries like a pro, medical staff at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital said of the 6-year-old.

The Palestinian boy was brought to Stanford to undergo corrective surgery for extreme orthopedic deformities earlier this year, traveling 7,500 miles from a refugee camp in the West Bank of Palestine.

His knees were bent the wrong way and his feet faced upside down. Before treatment, he could only crawl or be carried.

Casts gradually stretched his skin, ligaments, nerves and other soft tissue, and surgeries changed the position of his feet, stretched leg muscles and strengthen his knees.

Hadi's response was to sing and dance throughout the ordeal, even in his hospital bed right before going into surgery, said Richard Gee, a Lucile Packard physical therapy clinical specialist. Then, the boy who'd never taken a step in his life learned to walk in just two weeks.

(See June 6 story, "Palestinian boy walks for first time after treatment at Lucile Packard.")

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2 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 26, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Dear Onliners,

Featured in this article as one of our high-schoolers with the "courage to speak and reach out," Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot has teamed up with me—a former Gunn teacher—to turn the ideas and passion of her YouTube into action.

Our shared, grassroots initiative—named "Save the 2,008" for the total number of Gunn's teachers and students—is looking ahead into 2015 to bring a healthier, happier life to the school.

You can learn about us, and join us, at:

Our plan sets forth six, simple, concrete changes in the school's structure that would make for a different daily atmosphere, reduce stress, relieve anxiety, increase trust, and create connections between students and teachers.

Do visit our website, won't you?—sign on for our mailing list, and consider coming to the next Board meeting, on Tuesday, January 13th, to join the chorus of support. Add your voice to "like" one or more of our six proposals to the District's decision-makers.


Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)

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