Adding a star to the band’s flag

Who is Julia Sanchez?

“Julia was a social butterfly. She was known for smiling all the time. She was determined. Julia never met a stranger,” said Julia’s mom, Dotty Sanchez. Julia is the new star of the Pride of the Mountain Marching band (POTM).

Julia's advice to people with cancer. Photo from Julia's Facebook

Julia’s advice to people with cancer. Photo from Julia’s Facebook with permission from Dotty Sanchez

Julia Sanchez grew up in Fuquay Varina, NC. When it was time for her to go to college she chose WCU because of the Pride of the Mountains. In high school, she had seen them perform at competitions. Dotty Sanchez said that Julia told her that she wanted to be part of that.

In high school she played in the front ensemble of the band, so naturally when she tried out she tried out for the position she knew. The catch was, that she didn’t have all the knowledge needed to make to Gold band, the band that performs at all the football games.

“After we dropped her off at band camp. She called and told us ‘This is where I need to be!’” said her dad, Seth Sanchez.

Julia’s family described her as being as determined to achieve her goals and her goal, was to be in the Gold marching band.

“If she wanted something, she went after it. A prime example of that would be the fact that when she went out for the band initially, she didn’t make the final cut on her primary instrument (she originally played marimba in the front ensemble). An hour before auditions for the baritone section, she got her hands on an instrument and practiced to make a spot for an instrument she had never played before,” said Collin Cunningham, Julia’s bandmates and close friend.

Julia loved the band and WCU just one year after starting. She really blossomed and was a social butterfly on steroids. She was interested in studying abroad and started to make plans to study in Ireland during her sophomore year at WCU.

When the plans changed

The summer after her freshman year, because of her plans to study abroad, Julia got back to Fuquay Varina, NC and tried to find a job.

Everything was going great until the middle of June. Julia started to get a dizzy feeling and went to the doctors. The doctor thought it was an ear infection, so they treated it like one.
Dotty Sanchez said that Julia rarely missed work and was worried when Julia felt so ill she had to call her work to get permission to show up an hour late. Then after she went to work she had to come home an hour after starting her shift because she was throwing up.

On June 30, Seth Sanchez said, “Julia told me like the week before she said ‘you know, when I get up in the morning it takes me about 30 minutes to get oriented before I can get out of the bed’ and all the doctors thought that was in her ears.”

She stayed sick the next few days and she wasn’t showing any improvement. “On Sunday, I walked back past her bathroom and she was laying in the middle of the bathroom floor. We were like ‘honey what’s going?’ she said ‘I can’t sit up,’” her dad continued with a shaky voice.

Julia with the her baritone section. Photo from Julia's Facebook

Julia with the her baritone section. Photo from Julia’s Facebook

Julia was admitted to the hospital where the doctors said her calcium levels where extremely high. In response to learning this Julia joked about how she drank a lot of milk.

On July 4, at the small hospital called Johnston Memorial, Julia had a chest CT scan. A day later, the doctor said she had a mass the size of a grapefruit next to her heart and needed to be transferred to Duke University Hospital.

After transferring  to Duke, she had her blood sent all over the United States for experts to examine. When the results came back, they weren’t good. Julia had a rare form of pediatric cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma.

“She went through hell,” said Jason Sanchez, Julia’s uncle.

Julia had 54 weeks of aggressive chemotherapy and 35 days of radiation. The doctors would take 50 blood samples to test the white blood count. One day she had 3 white blood cells out of 50 in her body.

For Julia’s sophomore year, WCU let her continue on her education online. Dr. Callahan helped her stay in the Honor’s College.

“When she was too sick to read in the hospital because of the chemotherapy. There were certain courses I would read for her and some Seth would read to her, for instance jazz. Seth read her that entire text book,” Dotty Sanchez said.

Western gave her a lot of accommodations. Her professors really worked with her. The band rallied around her and supporter her. Julia got to come to Cullowhee and the band did a special pre-game show in an intimate band setting. She took pictures with her section, talk to the band while they took a knee and they gave her a big get well soon card with everyone’s signature.

“It was a great thing mentally for her to come back to Western and still be a part of the band,” Dotty Sanchez said.

Julia was a big supporter of Phi Mu Alpha, the band’s fraternity. She wanted to join the sister sorority, Sigma Alpha Iota, but never got the chance. As she grew sicker Phi Mu Alpha, came to her room in hospice to visit and to also make her the fraternity sweetheart.

Phi Mu Alpha visiting Julia in the hospital. Photo from Julia's Facebook.

Phi Mu Alpha visiting Julia in the hospital. Photo from Julia’s Facebook.

“The feeling in the room was probably one of the heaviest and most intense feelings I’ve ever felt,” Colin Cunningham said. “Prior to us getting there, those of us who carpooled across the state to where she stayed  stopped at a Diamonds Direct in Raleigh on a whim. Here you have rag tag team of 10 or so young men coming into a diamond store and drawing quite a few looks. We all pulled our money together and bought her a very,.. very nice necklace. When we presented it to her, we named her our sweetheart. She was excited. I know she was. And very humble. She was too weak to express it well, but I could tell.”

Julia passed two days after her friends came and saw her in hospice, on March 9, 2015.

“She planned her own funeral, picked out the songs, picked out her casket, her flowers, and even went shopping for a dress to be buried in 5 days before her death. She was the strongest person I have ever known,” Dotty Sanchez said.

Adding a star to the flag

Julia was a big part of the band at WCU. On Nov 8, 2015 the band honored Julia’s memory at the last home football game by adding a star to their flag.

The flag is a treasured thing in the band. It goes everywhere with them and is flown at every event.

Julia's family with David Starnes on the field. Photo by Hunter Bryn

Julia’s family with David Starnes on the field. Photo by Hunter Bryn

“Each star on it represents a different member of the band who passed away while they were a member. Julia was the sixth star added. We take that flag very very seriously,” Cunningham explained.

David Starnes, director of the POTM band, reached out to Julia’s family and invited them to Cullowhee for the memorial. The Sanchez family came up to the game and got to stand on the field for the national anthem and the Alma mater.

Hearing the band behind Dotty Sanchez was happy and sad and a bit hopeful.

“It was breathtaking. Because she loved it and nothing would have made her prouder. Nothing would have meant more to her. There was a part of me that was just hoping that I would turn a corner and she would be there. I think a part of her will always be on this campus and that’s what one of the band members said to us this weekend,” she said.

One of the band members told Dotty Sanchez, “Julia’s spirit still ran through the band and will always run through the band.” Now every time the band play’s Julia’s spirit will be present through the memorial flag. 

The Sanchez family feels like WCU is a home away from home, even with Julia passing. They will always come back because of the sweet memories they made with Julia and the memories of the band standing behind Julia.

Adding a star to the flag from Hunter P. Bryn on Vimeo.