By Juan Fourneau, Hola Iowa
Yvonne had a name picked out for her baby boy, who was expected to arrive during the Christmas holiday, Noel. But he arrived early, born prematurely at 33 weeks. Noel was almost delivered in the ambulance on the way to the University of Iowa Hospital. Three days after he was born, Noel was in crisis; his heart was racing, and he was fighting for his life. His condition took a turn for the worse when his heart stopped, and his mom was informed that he had passed. Devastated, his mother relied on her deep faith and prayer to deal with the loss of her baby. “When he passed, it was heartbreaking, devastating.” But Noel was resuscitated minutes after his heart stopped beating. “That changed my life forever.” It was a miracle; he was given a second chance at life.
The struggles were not over for Noel or his family. For two months, Noel spent his days in an incubator while his mom attended to him in his hospital room along with the doctors and nurses. Between shifts at Heinz, his father and older brother Omar would join the family at the hospital. Through the generosity of The Ronald McDonald House, they were able to be together during their medical ordeal.
When Noel went home, he needed nearly round-the-clock care, including medications every two hours. Nurses routinely went to the infant’s home to check on him. As he grew, crawling and walking took longer than normal. Due to his medications, his baby teeth decayed and had to be removed. It was a tough time for the Palacios family.
Through it all, his parents remained supportive of each other, despite the stress and enormous challenges. Noel’s mom is grateful for her husband’s family who lived in the area. “My parents are deceased, but I could count on his parents. I feel like his parents are my mom and dad, too. I felt so loved and cared for, and to this day, I still do.”
Looking back at the years of struggle, Noel’s father, Nelson Palacios, is astounded at what a parent can handle when their child’s life is at stake. “I didn’t realize how much a human being can endure.” When describing the hardships they went through, he attributes teamwork to their union. “You know, you just do this,” he says, clasping his wife’s hand, “and you say we’re a team. No matter what, we’re going through this together.” Though there were moments of despair, his wife agrees. “I’ve always been a woman of faith; I’ve always walked by faith, not by sight.”
Unfortunately, Noel did not have a completely normal childhood. As he got older and stronger, his parents began to get more hopeful as Noel grew a little healthier every year. At the age of six, Noel came home with a flier for a recreational soccer league. Noel had inherited a deep love for the game of soccer from both his father and grandfather who had played the game back home in El Salvador as well as here in the U.S..
His dad said yes right away, though he realized soon after the decision was not without risks. “An impact to the chest would be devastating,” says his father because of his son’s lungs and asthma issues. He knew Noel needed to be cautious.
Noel’s mom was hesitant about her son playing any kind of sport because of his condition. “I had been told we needed to be careful because of his heart, and his nose is sensitive because they put a tube down his throat when he was a baby so he could eat. Anything that hits his nose he starts bleeding.” After much thought and care, the Palacios decided to give Noel the chance to play the game and have the normal experiences afforded most children at that age.
Noel quickly developed a deep love for the game and had talent. It allowed him to show another side of his heart, one that was powerful in its spirit. “He showed me that no matter what, he’s always going to be a fighter,” recalls his mother.
Noel was invited to join a travel team, The Pearl City Soccer Club, where Victor Mendoza is the Assistant Director of Coaching. Mendoza points out Noel’s positive attitude as one of his defining traits. “He’s very coachable, he works very hard and wants to improve.”
Challenges to his health, especially his asthma, didn’t go away. Noel’s stamina was still fragile. His oxygen levels dropped at times requiring trips to the emergency room. To this day, inhalers and nebulizers are always nearby and available, part of his everyday routine. But Noel has soldiered on.
His position is striker, and at times has been called to be the captain of his team. His favorite soccer player is Lionel Messi, and he has a deep admiration for the legendary Pele and Maradona. Noel says, “They are the soccer players who changed the game.”
His father sees parallels between the Argentinian Messi’s challenges with the game and his son. Messi was medically diagnosed with dwarfism and struggled to be noticed as a talent. People told him for years he would never have the size to play professionally. Messi’s skills and athleticism were eventually noticed, and today he is widely considered to be the best soccer player in the world.
Similarly, as Noel demonstrated growing skills and commitment to the game, he began to be given opportunities to attend camps to improve his performance. Through one of these camps, he got to try out for the Real Madrid Foundation. His performance at the camp was rewarded with a rare opportunity to study at The Soccer Academy of Madrid. Noel was offered one of the two coveted spots.
Noel was never intimidated by the talent he saw at the camp, “I felt that they were really good, but I still believed in myself.” When he found out he had been selected, he was ecstatic. “I felt so happy and excited.” Noel will be representing Team U.S.A. and if he performs well at the academy, he may be given the opportunity to study at the academy the whole year. His coach is excited for Noel’s opportunity to practice and compete with other players from all over the world, from the best clubs in Europe and Latin America. “This makes us proud not just as coaches but as a club. He’s very deserving of this. His family is very passionate about the sport, and I hope they can raise the funds needed to allow Noel to attend.”
The camp starts June 2, 2024. The family’s goal is to raise ten thousand dollars to pay for traveling to and from Spain for Noel to attend the camp. They hope Noel’s older brother Omar and his younger sibling Bryan can join them so the whole family can be together while Noel attends the camp. They are fundraising through a GoFundMe campaign, selling tamales, t-shirts, and other ideas the family can come up with to raise the money that will allow Noel to attend the prestigious camp.
It’s clear that Noel is defying the odds by going for his dreams, despite his rocky beginnings and health challenges. No doubt he will be an inspiration to his teammates, coaches, and fans. The title of the GoFundMe page is a belief the Palacios family has adopted, “Miracles CAN and DO happen.”