Life's a Journey
“In life, you are always going to have left turns and U-turns.”
Local dentist Dr. David Samaniego heard that often from his father while growing up and fortunately the paternal wisdom didn’t end there. Dad Samaniego had more advice to offer and action to take.
“When that happens,” the pep talk would continue. “You just have to go back and re-group.”
It usually ended with a reminder to tell yourself, “Now, let’s go!”
Left turns and U-turns weren’t so much the problem in a recent leg of Dr. Samaniego’s life journey, the trouble was that he very nearly ran out of road.
In October of 2011, he had been declared healthy after a routine checkup. But six weeks later he was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer – leiomyosarcoma. This type of cancer attacks the soft tissues and David had a tumor “about the size of an orange” near his tailbone.
“I was just having some lower back pain - maybe due to working out,” he recounted. Samaniego immediately began consulting with local oncologist Dr. Bishnu Rauth and ended up at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. After some radiation treatment, he underwent his first surgery and hit a roadblock.
“They opened me up and then closed me back up an hour later. It was inoperable. I was told that unless we had some success with chemotherapy, I was pretty much done.”
He was already stage four and given a 7 percent chance of survival.
Samaniego began some aggressive chemotherapy, fired a Houston doctor with a particularly negative attitude, and “re-grouped.” On December 3, 2012, he went back to Houston for another surgery.
“I went in at 7:30 a.m. and when I woke up the clock said 8:30. I was pretty upset because I was thinking ‘same thing all over again.’ My wife was there and could tell something was wrong,” he said. “But what I didn’t know - and that she had to explain - was that it had been thirteen hours, not one.”
The tumor had shrunk to the size of a lime and the doctors were able to completely remove it. This past December 3rd, Samaniego had been cancer free for one year.
“It’s been a rough road for me and my family,” he said. “But we made it through, thank God.”
He has permission from his doctor to gradually return to his practice, which he hopes to do beginning in January, 2014. And he is anxious to do so.
“All I’ve known my whole life is work,” he says.
There are ten children in the Samaniego family, and David is number nine. He was born in El Paso but the family briefly moved to Juarez, Mexico, before moving to the U.S.
He grew up in California’s Coachella Valley and the small town of Indio.
“At age nine I sold newspapers in downtown Indio,” he said. “But my first real job was at age twelve cleaning golf clubs after school at Indian Wells Country Club.”
Indian Wells is a well-known club in the resort-rich region that surrounds Palm Springs, California. It is a playground for the rich and famous and young David had numerous celebrity encounters – Bob Hope, Flip Wilson, Telly Savalas and Frank Sinatra to name a few.
His work in resorts evolved into working in the food service industry and he was honored to wait on Ronald Reagan, once as President-elect and later as President. He vividly recalls an encounter with billionaire diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg. “He told me ‘Young man. You are very efficient. Wealth comes with efficiency.’ Those words always stuck with me.”
Another influence on Samaniego was David Warsaw, whose Sports Specialties company not only is a huge seller of sports novelties and memorabilia but is also the largest, authorized distributor of Pro baseball caps.
“He became a great friend and mentor.”
But working in resorts and restaurants – even starting his own cleaning business – wasn’t something Samaniego necessarily wanted to do for the long haul.
“My mom says I wanted to be a doctor since I was about five,” he said. “My brother (Dr. Mario Samaniego – who is ten years older) is also a dentist. That was a big influence on me."
Both brothers attended the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry in Loma Linda, California, and David came to Las Cruces in 1996 to join his brother’s very successful practice. David purposely waited to start his family because he saw the struggles his brothers and cousins – also physicians – had to endure while attending medical school.
“I wanted to make sure I was situated before I started that part of my life,” he explained.
He and his wife Patricia, who was a huge support during his treatment, have two children – Nadia, age 12, and Abraham, age 10.
But being blessed in so many ways is something that David is keenly aware of and it was brought into even sharper focus considering his recent health struggles. He participates in the Hands of Luke Medical Ministry, which offers dental and other medical services to the underprivileged in Mexico, but he has done dental and medical ministry as far away as the Amazon region of Brazil.
Maintaining a positive attitude and keeping his struggles in perspective is something that Samaniego also gives credit to something his father taught him.
“The sweet is not the same without the vinegar. Sometimes you need to have some bitter in your life in order to enjoy the sweetness.”