Alejandro was a typical teenage boy who loved soccer, had a black belt in karate and was a straight-A student. But he was not acting like himself.
His mom, Josephina, who works at the Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders as a parent liaison, noticed his personality was different and saw changes in his habits, like sleeping with his pillow rolled up and tucked high under his neck.
With growing concern over these changes, Alejandro was taken to Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego for an exam. The diagnosis was startling: Alejandro had medulloblastoma, a brain tumor that had metastasized to his frontal lobe and spine. He was in grave danger and required immediate surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
While treatment was effective, the aftermath was chilling. Alejandro could not speak or move for seven months and was eventually transferred to hospice care where he was expected to die. After 11 days in hospice, though, he was still alive. And on that day, something remarkable happened: He spoke to his mom for the first time in months – the perfect gift as that day happened to be Josephina’s birthday.
Within a couple of days, Alejandro was trying to sit up, and he was determined to walk, lift weights and regain his soccer skills. With the goal of getting back on his feet, Alejandro began physical and occupational therapy. At one session, he told the physical therapist, “I want to play soccer again,” so the therapist set up orange cones, and Alejandro, using his walker, kicked the ball, not straight, but he was determined to keep trying. Physical and occupational therapy continued, and two years later, Alejandro was walking, being home-schooled and playing chess to help reconnect his damaged neurons.
Josephina remembers watching his painstaking progress over two years. To keep herself calm and focused at his appointments, she crocheted several large blankets. As a parent liaison, she has taught many others to use this same therapeutic approach in waiting patiently for their child’s recovery.
Today, Alejandro is 27 and leading a full and active life. He has earned an associate degree, sung in the college choir and performed internationally. And now, he is pursuing his passion to become a priest. Alejandro has accomplished all of this despite dealing with the side effects of his treatment, including shaking on his right side and lack of balance and coordination, leaving him dependent on a cane to walk and unable to drive.
Alejandro is an inspiration to all of those who know him, not only for his sheer will, but for his selflessness. “If I was given a second chance at life,” he told his mother, “I want to help save others.”
Published June 2014