By Brance Arnold ’10 MA
“Sigue luchando y no te dejes vencer,” which translates to “keep on fighting and don’t ever give up,” is the mantra Lea Lopez-Fagin ’96 MSN carried close to her heart as she made the lifelong journey from living deep in the jungles of Peru to achieving the American dream in San Antonio, Texas.
One of 10 children, two of which passed away at a very young age, Lopez-Fagin was born and raised in the village of Picota. After the loss of her father to a boating accident at age two, Lopez-Fagin’s mother raised the children with the expectation that they would one day set out into the world to expand their horizons. Inspired by her mother’s work as a curandera or healer who practices folk medicine, she decided to devote her life to the compassionate care of others through nursing.
“I almost died when I was a child of communicable diseases,” shared Lopez-Fagin. “We lost so many children in the village. There were no doctors. You had two choices. Go to the curandera or die. My mother healed me.”
Her mother, born of Jewish immigrants, could not read or write but learned the skills of the curandera from the village elders.
After completing the 12th grade, Lopez-Fagin took a test in order to attend a nursing program in Lima, Peru. Out of 500 applicants, only 25 positions were available and she was accepted. She boarded a single-engine airplane with no seatbelts destined for Lima. Nearly 50 miles away and the closest city of any substantial size, it could only be reached by plane from her home. While flying over the Andes, she recalled the icy, white blanket of snow below and admitted she lost consciousness at 20,000 ft.
In Lima, her sister and brother-in-law, stationed in Panama with the U.S. Air Force, sent her $20 per month to help fund her schooling. She earned her Associate’s Degree in Nursing and then joined her sister in Panama where she lived for two years. In 1972, another sister and brother-in-law, also military, made it possible for her to come to San Antonio and thus set her on the road to the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW).
Lopez-Fagin, whose native language is Spanish, worked the nightshift at Southwest Methodist Hospital and took courses to learn English and U.S. history. While attending these classes she met her husband John Fagin, who taught in the public school system for 31 years and was an adjunct professor at San Antonio College (SAC) until retiring in 2010.
Eventually, she started a family and began working for the Audie L. Murphy Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC), but encountered a setback when seeking entry into the master’s program. The university only accepted the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission, which was challenging because Lopez-Fagin spoke and understood very little English.
Though a full-time working mother of two teenage children, Lopez-Fagin earned an MSN in adult health and graduated with honors in 1996. While at the university, she organized a health fair as chairman of the Education and Health Committee. As a result, she was inducted into Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing for her community leadership. She credits Incarnate Word’s faculty as an indelible source of support and inspiration in helping her to complete the program. In particular, she said Drs. Brenda Jackson, Barbara Herlihy, and Katherine Galia were instrumental in her success.
She believes UIW’s culture of acceptance and nurturing those from all walks of life was the key in the journey to her successes.
“I really feel like Incarnate Word gave me the tools to succeed. Without the caring attitude and approach of the professors, I could not have finished the program,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the caring attitude and philosophy of this school, I would not have become who I am.”
After UIW, she went on to earn a nurse practitioner degree from UTHSC. She worked for the VA for 25 years until retiring in 2003. Lopez-Fagin was then hired by UTHSC’s Department of Medicine, Cardiology Division, where she worked until 2012. An avid writer, she is involved in the arts and literature community in San Antonio. In fact, she is in the midst of writing a memoir, “The Healing Touch: My Mentors’ Gift,” honoring all those who have supported and inspired her in achieving her dreams. She further continues her ‘healing touch’ by working for Doctor at Your Service, PPLC., a company that provides medical services to people in their homes or assisted living.
“It is like the jungles of Peru,” said Lopez-Fagin in reminiscence of her mother’s work healing those in the village by providing care in their homes.
In 2012, she and her husband established an annual $1000 scholarship at UIW, the Lea S. Lopez-Fagin and John E. Fagin Nursing Scholarship, to assist Hispanic undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students in pursuit of a nursing degree.
On November 19, 2012, Leticia A. Olmeda, who is currently enrolled in UIW’s Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, became the first recipient of the scholarship. Originally from Roma, Texas, located on the border of Texas and Mexico, she is of Mexican American descent. Recently, Olmeda relocated to San Antonio to continue her education at UIW and seek better opportunities for her family.
“”It is through the generosity of people like Mr. and Mrs. Lopez-Fagin that students like myself are able to continue their education,” said Olmeda. “When you are a single parent trying to make ends meet and working on furthering your education, every bit helps.”
“With this scholarship, I am hoping to pass on that anything is possible with drive and desire,” said Lopez-Fagin. “Nursing has a big tapestry and the tapestry has different colors of love, caring and suffering. We must sew this tapestry together like a quilt where we blend and help each other as human beings.”
To learn more about the Lea S. Lopez-Fagin and John E. Fagin Nursing Scholarship, contact UIW’s Development Office at (210) 829-6013.