A student misdiagnosed for 16 years overcomes obstacles on road to graduation.
By Estefania Flores
Lisa Christine Garcia, special education and counseling sophomore, will never forget the day she learned she did not have bipolar disorder.
“It was my brother’s birthday; it was Aug. 15, 2012,” she said. “That day was the day the doctor told me that I had been misdiagnosed for 16 years, that I didn’t have a mental health issue.”
Now 32 and planning to graduate from this college in May, Garcia serves as vice president of scholarship and chairperson of the college project for the Beta Nu chapter of Phi Theta Kappa.
At age 14, Garcia had been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder after seeking medical care for symptoms related to abuse she suffered at the age of 12.
These symptoms — depression, lack of appetite, not sleeping and isolation — convinced her doctor that she suffered from bipolar disorder.
With that diagnosis, she became trapped on a rollercoaster of treatments.
“The biggest issue was that I was on different combinations of medications. I was so sedated most of the time that I was not able to get out of bed,” Garcia said.
She also found out she was allergic to 38 medicines prescribed throughout her 16 years of treatment.
Garcia said she was on more than 44 medications throughout the 16 years.
“Four different times I was on medication that I didn’t know I was allergic to,” she said.
The medications caused Garcia to suffer weight fluctuations from 90 to 215 pounds and serious heart issues. This led to 12 hospitalizations.
On top of the physical issues she suffered, the side effects of the medication caused her to suffer from emotional problems.
“I battled problems with body image,” Garcia said. “The other issue was confidence. My biggest thing was trusting people because you trust your doctor and people have really let you down.
“Psychologically, there were a lot of concerns, and it was very difficult for me and my family to understand,” Garcia said. “There was a lot of confusion. I faced depression, isolation and lack of appetite.”
The medications made attending high school difficult.
“I was sick most of the time, vomiting, overly sleepy, not being able to concentrate; I wasn’t able to stay awake in class. I could barely walk, and I couldn’t wear shoes because my legs were swollen. An average day was trying to be able to walk, whether it would be to my high school or from my bedroom to the kitchen. Just achieving high school was an obstacle,” she said.
In October 2000, Garcia’s grandmother passed away. Garcia began brief counseling three months later, in 2001, to cope with her grandmother’s death.
At the age of 17, Garcia graduated high school. Doctors told her college was not an option.
She discontinued therapy after three years but began it again in 2007, at 23, to finally address and heal from the abuse she endured in childhood.
After three years of therapy, the therapist suspected she might not be bipolar at all.
Garcia had declined suggestions to retest, but she finally agreed at age 28.
This set off a turn of events that changed her life.
“My therapist asked me if it would be all right to be retested by another doctor,” she said. “I wasn’t hoping for much — more of the same old, same old.”
Garcia received the results on her brother’s birthday in 2012.
“Once the doctor asked me to sit down, I knew that something was different,” she said.
“Lisa, you’re more normal that you think. You do not have bipolar disorder and while I can’t explain how this happens, my hope is it lets you move on with your life,” Dr. Michael Castillo wrote in his dictation notes the day she was cleared.
“He tells me that I have been misdiagnosed and that I didn’t have any mental health issue. I literally put my head on my lap,” she said.
“I walked home and debated calling my mother. I was very skeptical. Wondering if he got it right, wondering if we should get a second opinion. I was very frustrated and very angry and shocked, and I didn’t know what my next move was,” she said. “The half mile home felt like five, I had so much to think about.”
At 29, doctors recommended Garcia be weaned off the medications as soon as medically possible. Garcia was prescribed Lithium, Keppra, Depakote, Clonazepam and Seroquel when treatment was terminated. This process took 19 months.
Once free of the debilitating side effects, 16 years after her original diagnosis, Garcia registered at this college in spring 2014 at age 30.
“My biggest thing was trusting people in general because you go through a time when you’re trusting your doctors, and now you’re expected to come to San Antonio College and trust everyone around you,” Garcia said.
“When I was misdiagnosed, I hit rock bottom. I had nothing else but to trust God. I just wanted to trust God to lead me.
“I was told at 17 that I was not going to be able to go to college, so for me, it is truly surreal that I will graduate next semester,” she said. “And to the doctor that said that I couldn’t, I owe them a thank you because they are my motivation to fight more. Defeat is not an option.”
Garcia said she lives by a quote from 1 John 4:4: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the once who is in the world.”
After graduating from this college, Garcia plans to continue her studies at the university level.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree, Garcia hopes to return to this college one day and work in the student development program where her journey began.
Garcia, who joined this college’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa in August 2015, is now leading its college project. The project focuses on student success by talking to students about what made graduates successful.
The program provides students with resources such as a Phi Theta Kappa mentor, tutoring, help deciding on classes, a degree plan and a support system.
“(College project) is my baby, and it’s a great project and I’m thankful that I can lead it because it’s going to allow a lot of students to succeed,” Garcia said.
“I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but having that support and having friends that watched you along the way and supported you is what really kept me going,” she said. “Remember, there are four things that make you overcome obstacles: confidence, motivation, attitude, and it never hurts to have a good support system in place.
“It took me time to trust my professors, but as each semester went by, I would build solid relationships with the faculty. In time, I shared what had gone on,” she said.
Garcia credits psychology Professor Suzanna Borawski, who served as Garcia’s first professor at this college, for being a mentor and friend. During Phi Theta Kappa’s induction ceremony Nov. 3, Garcia recognized Borawski for seeing in Garcia what she had yet to see in herself.
“When I think about Lisa, I tend to just well up with pride,” Borawski said. “She has been an inspiration for me and when working with other students because I see the depths that she goes to and I realize that every student is capable of overcoming any obstacle. She gives me confidence in helping other students because I know that anything is possible because I’ve seen that through Lisa. I know that she has great things to come in the future.”
Garcia said philosophy Professor Richard Schoenig helped her continue to develop critical thinking skills and challenged her to think outside the box. Schoenig also serves as a faculty mentor.
“I’ve known Lisa for about a year and a half, and she is an inspiration to students who want to better themselves. If they follow her good example, I’m sure they will succeed,” Schoenig said.
Kinesiology Instructor Dawn Brooks impacted Garcia by encouraging her to not think of college as a sprint but a marathon. This helped Garcia realize that taking her time was a key to her success.
“As I was signing up for my last semester here at this college, I told myself, ‘I don’t really need to take boot camp, but I will take it anyway because it’s the last time I will have Professor Brooks,” Garcia said.
“My experience both professionally and personally with Lisa is that she is an achiever,” Brooks said. “She strives to do her best at anything, and we don’t often see that in today’s society. I am so happy that she is willing to show her pain and be vulnerable in order to help other people; it takes a very big person to put it all out there.”
Garcia said that she will greatly miss her faculty mentors and knows the feeling is mutual.
“They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Garcia said. “There are no words to really thank any of them. Those three instructors were my pillars.”
Throughout her struggles, Garcia lost herself. Thanks to her will to succeed, hard work, dedication and support system, Garcia was able to overcome obstacles.
When she was healthy in body and mind and able to enter college at 30, she remembers the most empowering moment of her life,
“I’ll never forget calling my mom as I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Mommy, I look like I did before they put the meds in me. I look like the real Lisa Christine.’”