life

Meet My New Friend Aria

Every child deserves to be healthy. They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, and they certainly do not welcome cancer into their lives… It just happens.

Hearing the words, “You have cancer” is horrifying. But hearing “Your child has cancer” is even worse. The parents of cancer patients carry heavy hearts.

Today I had the honor of meeting Aria, a 7-year-old cancer survivor, and her mother.
ImageAria woke up with a twisted tongue when she was just 5-years-old. Her parents, both physical therapists, knew that something must have been extremely wrong. They rushed her to the closest hospital. After doing an X-ray, her doctors found a tumor in her brain. Her parents had the option of either taking her to a local Syracuse hospital or to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. They chose St. Jude and never regretted the decision to do so – not for a hot second.

Aria’s first trip to St. Jude was heartbreaking for her parents. When they boarded the plane, her mother saw a boy Aria’s age with scars covering his bald head. She instantly broke down in tears, “I kept thinking, ‘That’s going to be Aria.'”

After the plane landed in Memphis, they travelled the St. Jude in the hospital’s complimentary shuttle. The young, bald boy and his mother ended up sitting next to Aria and her family in the bus. The boy’s mother started to cry and told Aria’s mother, “When I saw you crying on the plane, I hoped… I really prayed that you weren’t going to get on the shuttle… I really did.” They both found comfort in each other, shared their stories and became great friends. (Unfortunately, the young boy passed away three months later.)

As soon as she reached the hospital, Aria had a few tests done and went to bed. That night, life-changing decisions were made. “The doctors never want to put a child’s life at risk. It’s always about what’s best for the child at St. Jude. And if anything could harm them, it just isn’t done,” her mom said. The medical professionals at St. Jude had never seen a case like Aria’s. They wouldn’t touch the tumor until it grew larger. They sent Aria’s family home and told them to return in 3 months.

On her second visit to St. Jude, Aria was told that she only had a few months to live. They found that the tumor was surrounded by liquid and had been growing in her neural stem. This is rare. 

Luckily, her doctors removed her tumor with fewer difficulties than expected. But, the nerves on the right side of Aria’s body were damaged. She also had to change the hand she wrote with and she fell behind in her education after missing 90 days of school. But, who can complain when she’s alive, right? Now, her parents do physical therapy sessions with her and with each passing day, they see improvement.

Her case was special, and she too is a very special girl. She’s a survivor, a fighter and an inspiring young woman. After two surgeries and endless support from St. Jude, Aria was able to be visit my sorority Delta Delta Delta today. The Philanthropy Chair Chloe Font threw Aria a perfect princess-themed tea party. When I asked her what she loved most about coming to TriDelt, she smirked and mumbled, “The cookies!” SHE’S ADORABLE.

None of this would have been possible without St. Jude and the help of Delta Delta Delta’s fundraising over the past couple of years. In November 1999, TriDelta made St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital it’s national philanthropy. In 2005, TriDelta raised $1 million to build the hospital’s Teen Room, a room filled with board games, video games and other fun things (Fun fact: No one over the age of 18 is allowed in the room). In 2006, St. Jude asked TriDelta to raise $10 million in 10 years. We blew their expectations out the water by meeting the $10 million fundraising goal in 2010. IT ONLY TOOK FOUR YEARS. In 2010, we were asked to raise another $15 million in 5 years. Guess what?! It only took TriDelta 3 years and a half to meet that goal.

That’s amazing.
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We’re not only saving lives at St. Jude but we’re also saving lives everywhere else by funding breakthrough research. We’re essentially helping doctors find a cure for cancer.

St. Jude gives Aria’s family and many others ENDLESS support. They pay for everything so families are able to focus on the most important thing: providing love and support for their child without having financial stress. It costs $1.9 million per day to run St. Jude and no family ever sees a bill. Aria’s parents have tried to pay St. Jude back and the hospital will not accept their money by any means. St. Jude pays for their housing, food and air fare. They even pay for extra baggage fees in the airport.

St. Jude is a place where everyone fits in. Aria was given a home – a place where she has friends who are going through a similar experience to her. Being a part of this is indescribable.

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The Untold Ending

If you read my blog from beginning to end, you would realize a huge chunk of my story is missing. I never wrote about leaving the hospital. 

Every time I think of the last 5 days I spent in that jail, I tear up.

I couldn’t write about it. I couldn’t even speak about it.

I couldn’t find the words to express freedom and joy. How do you describe something that is just so damn sweet? How?

For those of you that know me, and even those who do not, you know that I’m very open. However, speaking about leaving the hospital has been something that I’ve kept to myself. It was such an emotional time and I will never be able to explain it perfectly, but I guess this version of it will have to do.

Here goes…

The untold ending that brought a new beginning:

                                        

13 DEC., 2013

It’s been a week since surgery. We haven’t heard a word from the pathologists.

Cool.

                                        

15 DEC., 2013

It’s 6:30 a.m. and there’s a knock at the door. Ah, they’re on time – as usual.

Every single morning at exactly 6:30, two or three of Cerf’s nurses check up on me. It’s SO early and I wish they’d let me get some damn sleep, but I quickly open my eyes hoping to see my man, Dr. Cerfolio, with the rest of his crew (I haven’t seen him since surgery. He went to complete his master’s degree in Orlando, FL, but he’s back – finally!). 

He’s not here though. I feel sorta sad but I get over it quickly. There are greater matters at hand.

“Any word on the pathology?”

Silence.

“Not yet.”

                                        

16 DEC., 2013

It’s noon. There’s a knock. No one walks in or opens the door.

Weird. 

Dad gets up and does the job.

Cerfolio and his ENTIRE team are standing by the door. Casual.

I can’t read his face, and for the first time since I’ve met this handsome, Italian man, he’s not smiling.

“Well… We still don’t know what it is… We will probably never know… But, what I can tell you is that there are no signs of malignancy…”

Dead silence filters the room. We’re just listening to him blabber on… Or hearing would be a better word to use. I pick up faint mumbles but nothing is clear or makes any sense.

Mom nods.

Dad nods.

Aunty Christine nods.

“Teresa,” Cerfolio calls my name and I snap back into reality. “You can leave the hospital tomorrow and continue life as usual.”

I have no words. I just nod.

He swoops me into his arms and whispers, “I love you. You have to tell everyone your story. You have to tell them.”

I nod and I hug him back. He gives me a kiss on the cheek and leaves.

As the door shuts, the silence breaks with mom and dad’s cries. They just tightly embrace each other and cry.

I silently sit and watch them. I don’t know if to smile. I don’t know if to cry. I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t even move.
There are no words to describe this.
There are no words.

Aunty Christine starts choking back her tears and does a really cute dance…Well, that does the trick.  I begin hysterically crying. Bawling is a more appropriate term.

Dad looks puzzled. “No smiles? You should be smiling!”

I can’t even look him in the eye. I keep crying. I’m struggling to catch my breath.

This feels surreal. Up until minutes ago, I thought I was dying – I genuinely thought there was no hope for me. The past two months have been a complete and total nightmare. A never-ending, dark tunnel. And FINALLY, there is an end to this shit and there’s a light somewhere.

My parents call my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins. The phone doesn’t stop ringing. They must have spoken to 30 people so far, and I still haven’t stopped crying.

Relief. Relief. What a freakin’ relief. 

I am crying because I am happy. Happy is an understatement. The fact that I don’t need to count my days is such a relief.

***

I finally catch myself a few hours later.

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Dad has taken it upon himself to break the law because, well, why not? This is definitely a valid excuse to drink!

Homeboy thinks he’s cute. He smirks and takes a swigs out of his “Starbucks” cup.

He has everyone laughing, which is liberating – finally, a genuine laugh.

I haven’t felt this relaxed in weeks although you would have never known that I was sick or upset. I had a smile on my face 24/7. I put up a front for the people that loved me the most – my family and Jeff. I couldn’t look weak. I had to be strong for them. I needed to be strong for myself.

photo 5 (2)Every tear I saved over the past two months came rushing out earlier today.
The world is whole again.

I watch mom, dad and aunty Chris laughing. I’m finally able to smile again and actually mean it.

Life is one funny roller-coaster ride.

                                        

17 DEC., 2013

Today’s the big day. I’m moving out.

UAB has been home for 12 days. I have had impeccable care from both my parents and my nurses. I really couldn’t have made it without them. As much as I want to leave, there are so many memories and friends that I have made here. I’m going to miss this place.

Dad comes back from the hotel with my suitcase. I begin packing my things and I’m thinking, “I’m leaving the old Teresa behind and taking the new Teresa with me.”

I’ve changed so much. You can shake your head and be like, “Pshh. Two weeks is nothing. Teresa’s the same girl,” but I would totally disagree. Spending two weeks in the hospital changed my life in ways you could never imagine.

And the waiting game is a bitch. Waiting to hear if you’ll live or not is traumatizing. I’ve had so many emotions bottled up. Will I be able to associate with my friends in the same way I always have? Will I still be bubbly? Will I still be me?

Who can I talk to that can actually understand my situation? Sure, my parents and my aunt were with me, but no one will ever understand what I went through.

Life is no joke. You never know when the big guy up there will call your name. You really have to smile, laugh, fall in love, and enjoy the little things that make life worth living extraordinary. Every single second of every minute of every day.

I hug the nurses, I grab my bags and I’m ready to bounce.

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The nurse escorts me out of the hospital (on a wheelchair, that is). As she reaches the door, I glance behind one last time and smile. This place was way too good to me. UAB, you saved me.

But it is time to leave. (YAY!)

I step into the real world and I’m like a pig in shit. Literally.

We take all the little things for granted. My first breath is long, sweet, and filling. Fresh air is a gift from God. It’s a gift that I am even able to breathe with my own lungs.

Mom thinks its too cold and yells at me to get inside the hotel. I totally ignore her and continue taking deep breaths of fresh air.

I’m caught up in my own world. I close my eyes and lose myself in nirvana.

What Christmas Means To A Girl Who Almost Lost Her Life

…. And what it should mean to you too.

I am a Christmas miracle.

During my surgery, the doctor called my parents and said, “If this is cancerous, I’ll have to close her up and send her home.” With a tumor the size of a cantaloupe, there would have been no hope for me – even with chemotherapy.

After being discharged from the hospital and driving back to Florida, I made the decision to stay put. I wasn’t mentally or physically able to fly back to Trinidad just yet.

We were lucky enough to find flights for the rest of my siblings to meet us three days before Christmas. And that is what counts the most.

It’s extremely different. It doesn’t feel like Christmas at all – or at least that’s what I thought.

I planned to build snowmen, put up a tree in my apartment and sing carols all November long to prepare myself for a great Christmas. We all know those plans went down very quickly. And my spirit had been shot after spending so much time in a hospital that only had one wreath hanging.

Usually, at home, I celebrate Christmas with all 100 family members on both sides of the family. There are red decorations, red food, and red everything in every corner.

BUT there’s a hustle and a bustle that I did not miss. Where and when did we lose the meaning of Christmas?

We’re always running around, starting mid-November, looking for gifts for this person and that person. We’re always lying on the floor, looking under the tree, and counting how many gifts have our names on it. Who cares?

That’s not what Christmas is about. Christmas is about being with your family, and most importantly being able to celebrate having your family with you. I’m so blessed to even see another Christmas.

Christmas is also about giving. Sure, we should give to those that we love, but what about the less fortunate? There are so many children that Santa never gets to. There are so many people that don’t even have bread on their tables while we make and eat unnecessary amounts of food.

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I kept crying about not being able to go home. I felt guilty and I wanted to be with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins more than anything else in the world. They’re my rock. But, there is good in just having my intermediate family here in Florida. We can really understand why Christmas is so important. What happened over the last few weeks should make our love for each other grow so much more and we can really learn to be grateful for having each other. This gives us time to reflect and build upon our experiences.

I am so happy to spend yet another Christmas with the most amazing people I could have ever asked God for.

Also, I finally got the experience of having a real Christmas tree. YAY!