Paula Santacruz is a bus driver for Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD). She has worked for the district for 15 years. Among bus drivers, it is a cordial habit to wave everytime they run into each other while on duty. Santacruz said the transportation department is a family, which is why they are all mourning the death of Oralia Gutierrez Lopez better known as “Lalita” by those close to her.
“We lost a member of our transportation family,” Santacruz said. “We need time to assimilate this tragedy.”
Gutierrez was on duty when she lost consciousness as she was driving in to drop off students at Coachella Valley High School. She passed away soon after. CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Edwin Gomez issued the following statement.
“Our hearts go out to the Lopez family at the passing of their beloved Oralia last week,” Gomez said. “She was a valued CVUSD employee, and will be greatly missed.”
According to CVUSD, the cause of her death is still under investigation. When Santacruz heard the news, she remembered how 14 years ago, she faced a similar medical emergency.
“It brought back all these memories, but I have to move on,” she said.
Santacruz was driving towards La Familia High School in Thermal when started to feel lightheaded and dizzy. Little did she know that she was suffering a heart attack while on the road. This happened 14 years ago.
“I reached the break, and I pushed myself backwards to stop the bus,” Santacruz said. “I heard a student say, ‘Bus Driver, please, what’s wrong?’ She grabbed the microphone and asked for help.”
Santacruz attributes her survival to the heroism of one of her coworkers who stepped in to perform CPR on her, a special training that all bus drivers go through every two years.
“We all get CPR training,” she said. “We are well prepared for emergencies like that.”
Santacruz said she had a second heart attack on her way to the hospital. This experience motivated her to prioritize her health. Being a bus driver is not an easy task. Santacruz said she has had to learn how to handle stressful situations and to find ways to exercise her body.
“Your hands are on the wheel, you are taking care of 80 plus kids, making sure they are sitting down, your eyes are everywhere,” she said.
Even after her heart attacks, Santacruz went back to her bus driving job. She said her trade is too rewarding to let go.
“You want to the kids to be safe and sound at all times,” Santacruz said. “You learn to love the children you work with.”
Santacruz said it hurts that her coworker Lalita did not run with the same luck as she did 14 years ago.
“She will always be in our mind, in our memory, and we will remember her just like she was: a happy and optimistic person,” she said.
Fellow bus drivers from Coachella Valley Unified School District held a vigil in Indio to remember their dear friend Lalita.