REXBURG, Idaho – Cesar Ibanez and his BYU-Idaho college roommates are more than close friends.
When they’re together, there is an overt sense of caring, love and a deep physical and emotional familiarity shared between the fraternity-aged men and Ibanez.
It’s not any kind of romantic love — it’s a feeling that has developed after years of devoted service and sacrifice to a friend.
“It’s really a brotherhood,” roommate Jacob Justice said. “Cesar knows that we’re willing to do anything for him and that he’s always in our thoughts and our hearts.”
But there also is a sadness in the group, because after years of being together many of the roommates are moving on. And given Cesar’s physical disabilities there is a very real possibility they might not see him again.
“There will come a time, and we don’t know when, when Cesar will pass away,” Justice said. “It’s hard to talk about, and it’s hard knowing I won’t be here when it happens.”
Ibanez, a 30-year-old biology major, is a bit of a medical anomaly. He has physical disabilities so severe doctors twice told him that he wouldn’t reach adulthood.
“It’s always been a risk, getting the flu, having it develop into pneumonia, and then not having the muscles, strength or will to move on,” Ibanez said.
The Brigham Young University-Idaho student suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that is gradually destroying the muscles that allow him to walk, breathe, swallow and control his arms, neck and head. He was diagnosed with the disease at age 10.
As a child, he could walk, but today Ibanez has little to no control of his legs, and the other muscles throughout his body are very weak. He cannot dress himself, go to the bathroom, shower or even get out of bed on his own.
There are days when he struggles lift his arms or even take a single breath.
It’s a harrowing prognosis, but Ibanez revels in his seemingly miraculous ability to beat the odds. He’s now lived well past the average life expectancy of someone with SMA.
He often jokes about living forever and dreams daily of becoming a biophysicist and, eventually, curing his ailment.
“Cesar is so optimistic,” roommate Trevor Morill said. “He’s always smiling, laughing and joking. He’s positive about his life and what’s ahead of him. He’s always talking about getting a master’s degree, a PhD and taking over the world.”
Ibanez has thrived at BYU-Idaho in large part due to his positive attitude, but also because of the roommates who agreed to the monumental task of caring for their disabled friend.
“I want these guys to be recognized for their work,” Ibanez said. “These guys try really hard to put a smile on my face everyday.”
Ibanez’s roommates help with virtually all of Ibanez’s domestic needs — from cooking to personal hygiene. They even take turns showering Ibanez.
Ibanez and his roommates had a hard time suppressing giggles when asked about helping Ibanez shower. “I remember my first day being anxious, but Cesar is on the ball and he knows how to instruct and what to say to us,” Justice told this reporter in 2013.
Soon, it became a routine full of lighthearted humor.
“The shower is pretty physical — there are no barriers, because there can’t be,” Ibanez said in 2013. “But the more you interact with the person that is helping you, the closer you get because it’s an intimate moment. I know it sounds weird … and we joke around a lot … but we really have become closer.”
That closeness has led Ibanez’s roommates to do some amazing things to help him.
In 2013, Ibanez’s original six roommates started a campaign to get a wheelchair-accessible van to help him get to classes in the winter. Previously he had to ride his motorized wheelchair five or six blocks to campus in the snow.
The campaign was successful. A van was donated to Ibanez and the roommates by an Idaho Falls businessman.
The roommates also secured new housing for Ibanez that was closer to campus and additional roommates. Ibanez is now one of 11 men in a college house. They all take turns meeting Cesar’s needs.
“At the beginning of the semester we have a meeting,” Justice said. “We talk about goals for the house and talk about some of the requirements of taking care of Cesar. We don’t ask them to do anything … but if they want to help out it is appreciated.”
Most of the new roommates have stepped up to the challenge of being Ibanez’s caretakers. But the original roommates still have carried much of the burden.
In two weeks, Morill and Justice, the last of the roommates to graduate, will leave BYU-Idaho for good and turn over care of Ibanez to new roommates.
“It’s going to be very different to not have to shower Cesar or help him out in the mornings,” Morill said. But it’s not something I’m terribly worried about … we’ve got some amazing guys coming in to help take care of him and take the reins from us.”
Still Morill and Justice have some concerns about what the future holds for Ibanez once they are gone.
That’s why they’ve organized Ceez the Night, a concert and GoFundMe fundraising effort to help Ibanez raise $10,000 to pay for continuing medical bills, upkeep on the van and wheelchair and help Ibanez finish college.
“An opportunity to do something like this for Cesar is pretty awesome,” Morill said. “Cesar has had a few hospital visits, so it’s smart to have some money in the bank when this does happen.
We also figured this would be an awesome thing to do before we leave the house with Cesar.”
Ceez the Night will be Ibanez’s first live concert tonight in Rexburg. The goal of the free concert is to raise awareness about Ibanez’s needs.
His roommates have started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise $10,000 here.
“It’s exciting for me to be going to this concert,” Ibanez said. “I’m going to miss my roommates and it’s going to suck, but this event is really cool and I hope people see it as a legacy to everything my roommates have done.