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Glen Burnie, Md., Caregiver Receives 2020 Pillars of Strength Scholarship

Candace Laguna’s life as a caregiver started after 2004 when her Marine Corps husband, Frank, returned from duty in Iraq. Describing him as “incredibly adventurous” and “self-giving,” Laguna said her hard-charging Marine always wanted to stay in the fight with his men. 

“He never sought immediate medical treatment when he should have, and that wreaked havoc on his health.”  

Her husband began battling with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffered from aggressive pain due to untreated and unstable spinal and ankle injuries as well as the mental effects of war.  

An extremely hard worker, Laguna said he would come home in the evening too exhausted to maintain his composure and strength. “His safe place [home] turned into our warzone, and we would experience as a family the highs and lows created by depression, survivor’s guilt, and physical pain,” she said. 

In 2009, wanting to be back in the fight, he transferred into the Army. But his dream to be an explosive ordinance disposal technician ended when he sustained an injury in training that fractured his already weakened spine, shattering a vertebra.  

Combined with previously suffered injuries, Laguna said this latest insult to his body created a “medical damage domino.” By 2013, functionally diminished legs frequently left him confined to a wheelchair, depressed and physically broken. 

While fighting for her husband’s health, the family would face a new challenge that would test both Laguna’s caregiving and parenting abilities. Their son Antonio, the eldest of their four children, was diagnosed with ROHHAD Syndrome.  

This rare disease attacks breathing, heart rhythm, temperature regulation and other autonomic functions of the body. ROHHAD is incurable and typically results in early death. 

Hoping to slow disease progression, their son underwent experimental chemotherapy treatments at The Johns Hopkins Hospital at Baltimore, Maryland. While doctors had no expectation that he would live to reach his teens—he will celebrate his 14th birthday this year. 

“Many nights, I was waking up to check and ensure that our child was still alive, as well as making sure Frank was coping with his depression and pain. Raising four children and caring for Frank and Antonio’s medical needs was complicated,” Laguna said. 

Managing daily life required effort and sacrifice on everyone’s part. For instance, as a precaution to reduce her son’s exposure to colds and flu, all four children were homeschooled.  

“From 2010 to 2019, life consisted of living from one hospital appointment to the next ICU admission or surgical waiting room,” she said.  At one point, the entire family of six was living in one room at the Fisher House to support her husband while he received intense physical rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas.  

After he was medically retired, Laguna was designated an official VA Tier III caregiver. And while she strove to keep her husband and son healthy, she refused to let adversity keep her from pursuing a college degree. 

“I took final exams at the foot of hospital beds, reviewed flashcards in ICU rooms, wrote term papers in doctors’ offices and stayed up late learning class material,” Laguna said. “During everything, I was able to earn 53 college credits and maintain a 4.0.” 

Her goal is to study biotechnology and health services management. With that knowledge, along with her caregiving experience, she said she hopes to advocate for patients as well as the healthcare system—a joint effort to provide the best care for the injured or ill.  

She confessed that she took a deep breath when she learned she would get a Pillars of Strength scholarship. 

“I’ve always told Frank I’ve got him, and I’ve told my kids I’ve got them,” Laguna said. “But now, with this scholarship, someone is saying, ‘I’ve got you.’”