‘When things need to get done, she steps in’

November 26, 2018

Miranda Cortez was restocking the Keurig station in the lobby of her father’s church before a service in October when she caught the wail of sirens rushing down nearby Airport Road.

The noise penetrated the friendly chatter inside New Beginning Christian Church. Cortez stole a glance out the open door, seeking out the lights that accompany the shrill sound.

If you knew what Cortez had been through, you might figure the sirens were some kind of frightening emotional trigger for the high school senior who only days before had been covered in blood trying to save a dying man just across the street.

But you’d be wrong. Cortez has always listened for sirens. Yes, the sounds make her worry — but also prompt her to spring into action.

“She’s always had this goal of wanting to go into health care, wanting to help people,” former teacher Stephanie Gurule-Leyba said. “Helping people has always been her number one priority.”

Cortez, 17, was among the parishioners who raced from New Beginning to help 64-year-old Richard Milan, a Michigan man who was shot outside the church on the evening of Sept. 26. She didn’t stop to consider the potential danger; instead, she grabbed whatever she could find to help save the injured man.

Tragically, Milan didn’t survive his wounds. But Cortez’s quick action brought to light something people around her had always known: She’s a unique young woman.

Whether it’s preparing herself for a career in health care, starring on Capital High School’s girls basketball team or even creating her own health and beauty product startup, Cortez has found a way to turn uncertainty into promise, and maybe even hope.

“I love helping people,” she said. “I try to do it in every way I can.”

At 5-foot-2, Cortez doesn’t look like a force with which to be reckoned. She describes herself as shy and, in general, quiet.

Put a basketball — or a challenge — in her hands, and that changes.

“She’s very quiet, very humble, but she’s a competitor when it comes to playing basketball,” her father, the Rev. Joe Cortez, said. “She would leave it all on the court, because we always taught her: If you’re going to do anything, do it with all your heart.”

As an eighth-grader, Cortez tried out for Capital High’s varsity squad and made it. She’s been team captain for three of her years on the team, and Jaguars head coach Darren Casados said she’s in consideration for a captain position for her fifth and final year as well.

“When things need to get done, she steps in, and she helps and gets the other girls going,” Casados said. “… She is the quiet leadership, I guess. She leads by example, in a way.”

On the court and in the locker room, Cortez said, she tries to help encourage her teammates.

“I just love teaching them,” she said. “I want to be the type of person that makes them better than me.”

Cortez’s love for basketball is equaled by her desire to pursue a medical career.

She recalls the moment that sparked that passion. It was the summer after her freshman year in high school. Her mother, Bernadette Cortez, was in the kitchen, slicing an avocado, when the knife slid off the pit and cut into her hand.

Miranda Cortez, who heard her mother’s cry, reacted quickly. On autopilot, she grabbed gauze, antibiotic ointment and athletic tape and bandaged her mother’s wound.

“That was a cool feeling,” she said, speaking of her ability to help her mom. “I could already just tell, I loved doing it.”

Her medical aspirations — and a high school course in medical innovation — also sparked Cortez’s first business venture: a self-care line called Pure Rejuvenation. She makes and sells items like soaps, bath bombs and hair treatments, testing new recipes in between homework assignments and shipping orders from her website between school and basketball practice.

“I wanted to incorporate medicine with spa, health and wellness treatment products and stuff like that,” Cortez said. “… I think, one of the biggest things, in order to feel good, it always helps when you do a spa or you do a pedicure. You feel proud. It’s internal happiness.”

Before this fall, Cortez’s medical studies had been mostly in the classroom. She has studied forensic analysis and human anatomy and has done medical-related lab work, and has taken weekend courses at Santa Fe Community College to get certified in life support.

All of which brought her to the evening of Sept. 26.

Cortez had just served herself a helping of her grandmother’s green chile enchiladas during a post-worship potluck when she spotted her mother coming through the crowd toward her, looking worried.

“Nana needs you right now; there’s an emergency. She needs gloves and first aid,” Cortez recalled her mother telling her. Knowing she didn’t have time to hunt for gloves in the middle of an emergency, Cortez grabbed plastic bags from the church’s supply closet instead and snagged napkins on her way out the door. She raced across the street to find her grandmother on the ground next to a stranger who was bleeding profusely, while her father and other men from the church kept watch.

“What do you need me to do?” she asked her grandmother. Together, they checked the man’s pulse — which was so slow Cortez worried they were losing him — then started to remove his clothes to locate the bleeding. With her hands, Cortez put pressure on a gunshot wound to the man’s thigh.

Congregants called 911 and tried to help Milan until police and an ambulance arrived. But Milan died later that night from blood loss caused when one of two gunshots severed Milan’s femoral artery, police documents say. His suspected shooter, a local 17-year-old, was arrested and is in jail facing murder charges.

One of the first people Cortez called after the incident was Gurule-Leyba, her former medical teacher at Capital High School.

“She said, ‘I’m fine Ms. Leyba. It was just such a sad event, and I’m mad and I’m upset and I’m hurt because of what I was able to do and remember,’ ” Gurule-Leyba said. “There were so many emotions going through her at the time, but I was so impressed with her.”

Cortez she learned some lessons in the wake of Milan’s death. If nothing else, she overcame her doubts about whether she could handle the grittier parts of a career in medicine.

She also learned not to take anything for granted. Not one minute. Not one practice. Not one opportunity.

“It’s important to realize life is nothing but a vapor,” she told The New Mexican the week after Milan’s death. “Everything comes and goes, and it’s important to take everything and cherish it.”

Update hourly