‘Inspiration’ saluted: St. Mark’s grad admired for response to disability


Friday can’t come soon enough for Alejandro Pabon. That’s when he’ll be fitted for his new leg prosthetics at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia — almost 4 months later than anticipated.

Pabon, 16, known as “Alex,” or “Dro” by classmates from St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington, Delaware has Grebes Salgado Syndrome, a type of short-limbed dwarfism that affects less than 1 percent of the population.

Although his arms and hands are completely functional, Pabon typically relies on his prosthetic legs to get around. A surgery last November, called a “Symes” amputation, intended to help improve his mobility and posture, removed part of both Pabon’s feet, leaving him to use a wheelchair until his limbs heal completely.

As a junior, Pabon enrolled at St. Mark’s in 2006 when his father, Hiram, an engineer at AstraZeneca, relocated the family to Delaware from Puerto Rico.

“High school was different in the United States,” Pabon said. “I went from a class of less than 100 to a class with more than 400 students. Plus the lunches here cost a lot more money.”

But he quickly adjusted to St. Mark’s; he was active in the chess club and the game and strategy club. And, said Susan Vavala, Pabon’s guidance counselor at St. Mark’s, he surrounded himself with friends right away.

“His difference isn’t about his disability but it’s his ability to draw people to him wherever he goes,” she said.

“I feel just like everyone else because that’s how my parents raised me,” Pabon said.

Pabon grew up in Guayama, Puerto Rico, with his family, which also includes his 10-year-old sister, Karina. Pabon’s mother, Ivelis, describes her son’s childhood as “just like everyone else’s. He could do what every other kid did — ride bikes, swim, play ball — his activities were just modified to suit him,” she said.

“Don’t forget playing Xbox,” Karina said. “Alex is always playing Xbox.”

When Alex was born, his parents researched his disease at the College of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico. Their findings eventually led them to seek treatment from a clinic in Puerto Rico which provides free care to children.

“We’ve been working with Shriners [Hospital] since Alex was very young,” Hiram said. “They truly want to provide children with a means to live.”

Faith has also helped the Pabon family.  “It’s very important,” Ivelis said. “If you don’t have faith you’re not going anywhere.”

Alex agrees.  “Faith helped me get to this point,” he said. “I had my surgery on a Tuesday, left the hospital on a Friday and made it to church on Sunday in my bright yellow casts.”

Still, Pabon is grateful he had the surgery done. It’s going to help him achieve one of his most important goals.  “I want to be walking when I get to college,” he said.

This fall, Pabon will attend the University of Delaware, where he will study criminal justice. He hopes to become a lawyer.  “He’s great at arguing,” said his mother.

Vavala couldn’t be more proud of Pabon for working hard, keeping his grades up and getting into college.

Earlier this month, Pabon received the Rachael M. Ali award for “quiet leadership, excellence of character and devotion to St. Mark’s High School” at this year’s commencement ceremony. Ali, an assistant principal and charter faculty member of St. Mark’s, died of cancer in 2000.

“To win that award is quite a big deal,” said Vavala.

She’s sad to see him go. “I’ll miss him so much next year. He’s a mentor to everyone. He’s never once tried to make people feel sorry for him…It’s been a joy to know him. He’s an inspiration. He’s my hero.”

Printed with permission from The Dialog, the weekly newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware.

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