Trini Perez-Ojeda, engineering manager at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, always smiles when she talks about her wife, Crystal.
The two had been married just over a year when Crystal was diagnosed with lung cancer. A year later, in 2016, she passed away at age 34. She had never used tobacco, although smoking is the number one risk factor for the disease.
“The best memory I have of Crystal is her huge heart and how she shared it with everyone,” Trini says. “She’d give her last dime to help someone in need.”
According to Trini, whether it was helping a family who had fallen on tough times and were unable to buy Christmas presents for their kids, pay bills or buy food, Crystal was “all about family, community and giving back.”
The two met when they were just teenagers in 1993. Like all young couples, their life was full of adventures, goals and lots of love, but their happiest moments were spent raising their son, Isaiah, who is now 22.
To keep her wife’s legacy of love alive, Trini, along with an amazing group of friends and relatives, are honoring her memory by raising awareness through the American Lung Association (ALA) LUNG FORCE Walk.
The group’s matriarch is Gloria Repik, Trini’s mother and chief supporter, who dubbed the walkers “Crystal’s Angels.” Gloria also gives back as a Sharp Grossmont volunteer, handcrafting crocheted beanies for cancer patients, which were also inspired by Crystal.
Angels with a cause
Crystal’s Angels joined the annual ALA LUNG FORCE Walk in 2017.
“I started by communicating with the ALA in San Diego,” says Trini. “Once I had enough information, I told my mom I wanted to help spread awareness. The first year, we had 55 walkers. In our most recent walk, we had 200-plus.”
Crystal’s Angels are committed to helping others who have lost loved ones to lung cancer, as well as anyone facing the disease so that they never feel alone. They started out grassroots, organizing home parties to recruit family and friends, and eventually built one of the largest teams.
On January 30, 2022, they’re planning to join an estimated 2,000 walkers at Liberty Station NTC Park for the ALA’s signature event to raise awareness and funds to help end lung cancer. The event provides critical funds for lifesaving research, early detection initiatives, and pandemic defense and prevention through the organization’s COVID-19 Action Initiative and vaccine outreach.
Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer-related deaths among women and men. Every 2 minutes and 14 seconds, someone is diagnosed with lung cancer. Of those who are diagnosed, 4 in 5 people will ultimately die of the disease.
While smoking tobacco is the top risk factor for developing lung cancer, nonsmoking-related lung cancer does happen. According to the CDC, about 10% to 20% of lung cancer cases occur in people who don’t smoke.
Creating Crystal Beanies
The idea for Crystal Beanies came about when Gloria began making beanies for people with cancer while her daughter-in-law was in treatment.
“Crystal and Trini had been buying beanies and passing them out to women undergoing chemotherapy who lost their hair to keep their heads warm. I told them I could make the beanies myself using extra yarn I had from other crocheting projects,” says Gloria.
She began crocheting colorful beanies, adding a little sparkle to each one. They became known as Crystal Beanies, and the hats turned out to be a hit among patients. All the beanies had a touch of bling including glitter, textured ribbons, shiny buttons and small jewels that gave them a designer look and feel. Everyone wanted one.
It became hard to keep up with the demand, so Gloria recruited others to help with the cause. She named her beanie-crocheting team Crystal’s Angels, which eventually became an extension of the LUNG FORCE Walk team.
The beanies include two tags. One reads: “In loving memory of my beautiful daughter-in-law, Crystal. She sparkled on Earth, now she sparkles in heaven.” The other tag is a photo of Crystal and a message letting patients know how Crystal passed, and that they’re not alone.
Five years later, Gloria and several angels are still crocheting the beanies. She and Trini deliver them to patients with cancer every month.
Gloria says, “It makes me feel good knowing I have brought a little bit of happiness to those beautiful ladies. When I see the smiles on their faces, it inspires me to go home and make more beanies.”
Join Crystal’s Angels
Crystal’s Angels began to keep Crystal’s memory and her passion for helping others alive. “I know she would approve and would be right beside me at every event and every walk,” says Trini.
She encourages everyone to get involved. Whether you walk for Crystal’s Angels or in the memory of your own loved one, it all starts with one person.
“We’re all here to help one another,” Trini says. “I’ve had many people reach out to me to ask how they can get involved to honor a loved one. It has not just been individuals affected by lung cancer.”
The Burr Heart & Lung Clinic at Sharp Grossmont Hospital is proud to be the exclusive health care partner of the American Lung Association – San Diego, with the goal of saving lives through early detection. Talk to your health care provider about your risk factors and screening, and visit sharp.com/betterbreathing.
For the news media: To talk with a Sharp Grossmont Hospital oncologist about lung cancer for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.