13-year-old leukemia survivor has one true hero: her brother

November 11, 2014 | by Dominique Grignetti

In February 2003, when she was only 16 months old, Maya Gallardo was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and, to make matters much worse, pneumonia.

Aaron Gallardo hugs his little sister Maya, while she was sick with acute myelogenous leukemia. Aaron Gallardo hugs his little sister Maya, while she was sick with acute myelogenous leukemia. Aaron's stem cell donation cured Maya of the disease. (Photo courtesy of the Gallardo family.)

The pneumonia complicated what was already destined to be grueling treatment regimen. To assess the extent of her illness, Maya had to endure a spinal tap procedure; the pneumonia meant it had to be done without anesthesia. Her parents could do nothing but watch, and try to comfort her. The spinal tap revealed such severe leukemia that doctors at the children's hospital where she was being treated said she would likely live only a few weeks. Nonetheless, they stabilized her, and began treating her with chemotherapy. Normally, chemotherapy is not given to pneumonia patients, but because Maya’s leukemia was so advanced, she had no option but to undergo simultaneous treatment for both. If the chemotherapy went well, she would need a bone marrow transplant, the only option for curing her AML."By the grace of God," as her family describes it, Maya survived the first round of chemotherapy. She also beat the pneumonia.  Still, she would have to undergo two more rounds of chemotherapy before she would be able to have a bone marrow transplant. Aaron Gallardo, Maya’s older brother, was 5 years old at the time. He was tested and found to be a perfect match for his sister’s transplant. Older brothers often protect their little sisters, and in this case, Aaron would not only protect Maya, he would be her only chance at surviving cancer. The Gallardos considered the related match to be a blessing, but they were still nervous. They were told they’d have to wait for a patient isolation room to become available before the transplant could be done, and they were concerned about the pain their son might have to endure. 

11- year pediatric cancer survivor Maya Gallardo celebrates her first holy communion with mom Nora, dad Marc, brother Aaron and little sister Emma. Former acute myeloid leukemia patient Maya Gallardo , left, celebrates at a wedding with mom Nora, dad Marc, brother Aaron and little sister Emma. (Photo courtesy of the Gallardo family.)

Then came what the Gallardos now call "a miracle" – Maya’s care was transferred to City of Hope. Joseph Rosenthal, M.D., the Barron Hilton Chair of Pediatrics, and his team took over care of Maya. He explained that Maya would not need a bone marrow transplant, but rather a stem cell transplant. A stem cell transplant, he said, would yield better results and would require a much less painful procedure for her brother Aaron. Relieved, the Gallardos knew their daughter, and their son, were receiving the best possible care. “During Maya’s entire stay at City of Hope, the doctors, nurses and staff were so caring and attentive, we felt like we were with family,” said Marc and Nora Gallardo, recently writing about that time 11 years ago. “Our family feels so fortunate to have gone through this experience at such a beautiful, loving place like City of Hope.” The stem cell transplant cured Maya of her AML. Today, she is a healthy and energetic 13-year-old who excels in academics and plays clarinet in her school band. She’s an athlete involved in soccer, cross country and gymnastics. But most important, her parents say, she's a wonderful daughter, a role model to her younger sister and a loving sister to her brother – her hero.

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