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Edgemoor Hospital Resident Finds Art and Education After 'Brush' with Death

Paralyzed and confined to an motorized chair after a car accident, Jesus Montoya, 34, a student at Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges, can paint beautiful pictures using only his mouth.

The following announcement was made by the County of San Diego on April 2, 2012:

Using a brush tucked into his mouth, Jesús Montoya can turn a blank canvas into beautiful landscapes and other colorful pieces of art.

Montoya is also using his advocacy skills to change the canvas of his own life, as well as some of the rules of the in Santee, where he’s been for the past 12 years.

All his life, Montoya wanted an education and the 34-year-old is likely to accomplish his dream at San Diego State University (SDSU) where he was recently admitted.

“I feel proud of myself,” said Montoya, who will be a junior at SDSU’s School of Social Work this fall. “If I can do it anyone can do it.”

The road to a college education has not been an easy one for Montoya. 

It was a rainy day 13 years ago when Montoya was driving on State Route 76. He was headed to his second job, an additional income he would need to support his soon-to-be-born son. All of a sudden he saw a car coming at him out of nowhere and in an effort to avoid it, he crashed. The accident left him paralyzed from right below the chest down.

He is confined to an electric chair, which was specifically designed to accommodate his disabilities. A strap on his right hand helps him maneuver his chair, which can tilt left or right and even backwards to relieve the stress in his body.

He also suffers from severe pain on his right shoulder and has no movement in his hands from the wrist down. He needs help to turn when he is in bed. He needs help for practically everything.

“It was very difficult. I was very frustrated” Montoya easily admits.

The frustration turned to anger and the anger was directed at the nurses who cared for him.

“I was angry and mad with everybody,” he said.

Montoya constantly complained. He complained about his pain, but also about the fact that he had to explain his condition to the many different nurses that cared for him. He had become a pain.

But he says it was not entirely his fault and Dr. Rebecca Ferrini, Edgemoor’s medical director, agrees.

His complaints led to some changes. Edgemoor rearranged its nursing and medical staff work hours for better consistency.

“Now the same people care for the same patients all the time,” said Dr. Ferrini.

But that is not the only change Montoya wanted. He wanted to be able to leave the confines of Edgemoor. Administrators were hesitant. There were too many risks. They were concerned for his safety. There were also restrictions from Medicaid, which pays for Montoya’s care.

How would he get where he needed to go? If his electric chair broke, he would be confined to his bed as it would take days, if not weeks, for Medicaid to fix it. If he dropped something, who would help him pick it up? What if it rained?

Montoya would not give up. He convinced administrators he knew and accepted the risks. He also realized his attitude towards staff had to change and it did. Edgemoor gave in.

“He is the first one to do this here,” said Dr. Ferrini. “Disability is a condition, not an illness. Some patients have limitations but they are not sick. A real culture change took place.”

Montoya was ready to come and go. He started by taking an English class for three years. Then it was on to Foothills Adult Education Center in El Cajon. He did not want a General Education Diploma. He wanted a “real” diploma. It took him a few years but he got it and with it a laptop from his classmates.

At first, he would take a special Metropolitan Transit System bus, but at $7 per trip, it got to be too expensive. He switched to regular bus and trolley and now only pays $18 per month.

That is how Montoya gets to Grossmont and Cuyamaca community colleges, where he has completed an Associate Degree in arts and maintains a 3.16 grade point average.

He is studying full-time, which make the days long and hard but now he does not complain.

His electric chair has not broken down. If he drops something or needs help his classmates are there for him.

He is still in pain but no longer a pain. He is also not doing it alone. His nurse knows exactly when he needs certain books and utensils. She and other Edgemoor staff also help him set up his painting canvass and supplies. They have become friends.

His friends donate items he needs. The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World gives him lessons and some of the painting materials he needs. He sends some of his art to them and some is reserved for Edgemoor’s Healing Hearts program.

“It’s hard, but once I started I just kept on going,” said Montoya, who also sees his now 12-year-old son Marco Antonio, who lives with his mother in Oakland. “I have the support from all my friends, the nurses, and the doctors.”

His example has led other patients and some nurses to continue their education.

“He is such an inspirational person,” Dr. Ferrini said. “We are tremendously proud. It’s such an accomplishment.”

Montoya continues to paint but knows school comes first. He almost never misses a class. .

“I don’t want to miss anything,” Montoya said.

Originally he set out to study art but has now switched to social work because he wants to help and advocate for others.

“I rely on social workers a lot,” he said. “I will be able to help others because I’ve been in their situation.”

College has been hard on Montoya because everything he does requires more effort and more time. As a junior at SDSU, he realizes college will be even harder. But he is ready for the challenge.

“I am excited but nervous too,” said Montoya. “It’s going to be a lot more work but it’s worth it.”

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