15-year-old Cancer Survivor Grateful for ‘Opportunity at a Second Life’

May 9, 2018 | by Letisia Marquez

Sandra Martinez recalled with a smile just how much her son, Arturo, loved to run.
“I remember at Disneyland one day, he just took off on us,” Martinez said about Arturo, her only child. “In fifth grade, he got second place running a mile.”
But Arturo’s energy started to wane in sixth grade. He couldn’t run during P.E. because one of his legs hurt.
Martinez and her husband, also named Arturo, took their son to a doctor, who told them the younger Arturo might have growing pains. Another doctor told her it could be psychological.
“He was in so much pain that I was going through bottles of Tylenol and Motrin,” Martinez recalled. “He was really tired and had no appetite. I knew something was wrong.”

In Search of a Donor

Arturo started to get fevers and rashes. Martinez grew more concerned. After several months of visiting various doctors, one doctor finally told her in Spanish (so Arturo wouldn’t understand) that the 11-year-old might have acute lymphoblastic leukemia. By this time, Arturo also had chest and abdominal pain.
A few days later, shortly after Thanksgiving in 2014, Arturo started chemotherapy. The next couple of months were particularly devastating for Arturo and his family. Chemotherapy wasn’t working and Arturo also wasn’t feeling well.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Arturo said. “I had a lot of anxiety.”
In late February 2015, his doctors let the family know that Arturo would need a bone marrow transplant and asked that they start looking among family members for a donor. Several cousins were tested but none were a match.
To Martinez’s surprise, because she had heard it could take a long time, Arturo found an unrelated donor within a few weeks. He was admitted to City of Hope a few days before the transplant, just before his 12th birthday, to receive chemotherapy and radiation to wipe out his leukemic cells.
“So for his 12th birthday, he got radiation,” Martinez recalled.

New Challenges

Arturo’s health would continue to be plagued by numerous challenges, including a severe case of graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD.) GVHD occurs when the donor’s cells do not recognize the recipient’s own cells, often in the skin and intestines, and attack them. This affected both his stomach and skin, and he developed severe rashes.
At one point, Arturo was so depressed that he didn’t want to take any medicine. But one City of Hope nurse helped turn things around for him. Esmeralda “Emi” Arias spent time with Arturo, coaxing him into taking medicine by offering him gifts from the “joy jar.”
“They have little things that were donated for him to play with while he’s in bed like cards, Barrel of Monkeys,” Martinez said. “Emmy would take the time to play with him and that would cheer him up.”
Arturo remained at City of Hope for three months under the care of Nicole A. Karras, M.D., City of Hope assistant clinical professor of pediatrics. 
During the next year, Arturo continued to have health problems related to his GVHD and remained on many medications. As a result, he developed pancreatitis, which was extremely painful. Arturo also endured a pair of bone fractures and used a wheelchair for several months.

A Second Chance

But Arturo set a goal for himself – he wanted to attend his favorite cousin’s graduation from California State University Humboldt in the summer of 2017. He took the medicines he needed, took classes at home (because his immune system was still weak) and participated in physical therapy classes to help him walk again.
"When I first met Arturo, he didn't believe he could champion through this, and was very nervous about medications,” Karras said. “Arturo was very inquisitive about anatomy and all the changes happening with his body and the transplant. In the end, I was so impressed by how much he grew, how he overcame these fears and conquered both transplant and GVHD".
Indeed, last summer, Arturo took the week-long trip he had dreamed of, and attended his cousin’s graduation. He’s excited to thank the donor who has made those and many other experiences with his family possible.
I just want to thank him for what he did,” Arturo said. “He gave me the opportunity at a second life.”
Arturo and his family will have the opportunity to do just that on Friday, May 11, at City of Hope’s 42nd Annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, where Arturo will meet his donor.
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