Anti-smoking crusader carries her message to students
Six years ago Fritzi Santos of Fallon, Nev. had throat surgery. Three years ago she discovered the electronic devise that has meant all the difference.
"I do this because I love children," Santos said. After being diagnosed with cancer - cancer resulting from years of smoking cigarettes, Santos has become a crusader against the disease.
She tours schools with the equipment she needs to live, setting up a display that describes the results of her years of smoking. The table displays a conglomeration of plastic tubes to help her breathe, devices to help her clean her bronchial system and windpipe.
She tells the audiences of schoolchildren the batteries she needs to run her electronic speaking device (held to her throat to project vocal chord vibrations) cost $35 a piece, and she uses four a day when she's doing speaking engagements.
She held up pictures depicting a youth who got cancer from chewing tobacco.
"He died at the age of 21 on graduation day," she told them.
But the sight that elicits the greatest response from the youthful audience is the hole in her neck.
"I have to show them," Santos said. If words aren't strong enough to convince young people to stay away from cigarettes, such a sight will stick in their memories.
A few students began to feel ill at the sight and had to leave the group.
"But that's OK," said Tia Rancourt, from the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.
This is the third year the fire district has sponsored Santos' visit to the Incline Village schools in an effort to get the message across to the youth in this community.
Santos not only showed the students the effects of smoking, and the reality of cancer, she told them her life story.
"I wanted to get back at my father," she told them. "So I decided to take up smoking."
Santos married young and had her first child at the age of 20. When the young couple visited her parents, she said, her baby began to reach into an ashtray.
Her now ex-husband flicked open his cigarette lighter and burned the baby's hand.
This was the beginning of the end of that marriage, according to Santos. She would not allow anyone to harm her son.
The youthful audience heard the story of a woman who had a difficult time as a young mother, needing to find work and find child care. They also heard about a girl whose anger didn't hurt the father she lashed out at, but instead, hurt only herself.
Santos also told the story of meeting her second husband, and of the blessing this marriage has been to her. She presents her life to the youngsters - the mistakes and weaknesses as well as the lessons learned, the strengths gained, and the joy of life itself.
"Sometimes when I come back to a school a student will say 'hi' and tell me he quit smoking after seeing me," she said. "If I save just three out of the 200 seated in the bleachers, it's worth it," she added.
She told them a doctor gave her a choice: go through the surgery or don't do anything.
"He said, if I were his mother he'd tell me to have the surgery because he wants me to live." For Santos, that was the answer.
She enjoys her son and three daughters, her many grandchildren and her husband Raoul, whom she lauds openly for his support and love.
"He understands how important this (speaking to children) is to me," she said.