Zuleika Flores was only 5 years old when she started to feel a lot of pain in her ankles. Small dots of blood had formed there, and underneath her eyes, tiny dots had also appeared.
“She never cried, but she was crying a lot that day from the pain,” recalled Luciana Flores, 38, Zuleika’s mother. “So we took her to the emergency room.”
After a few hours and several tests, an emergency room doctor delivered some startling news to the family.
“I don’t want to tell you this, but I have to: Your daughter has leukemia
,” Luciana, a San Diego resident, recalled the doctor saying. The red dots Zuleika had were caused by bleeding under the skin, a leukemia symptom.
A Tough Battle
Zuleika started chemotherapy just a few days later. She was eventually diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Because Zuleika’s cancer didn’t go into remission with the chemotherapy, doctors told the family a few weeks later that she would need a bone marrow transplant
. They visited a hospital in San Diego to talk to a doctor about Zuleika receiving a transplant, but other doctors recommended City of Hope.
“When I met [Nicole Karras, M.D.
] at City of Hope, I felt confident that the transplant would work,” Flores said. “I didn’t feel that confidence with other doctors I met.”
Luciana moved with Zuleika to City of Hope, leaving behind her 1-year-old son. Her mother-in-law and other relatives looked after him. Her husband, Juan Carlos, usually worked four days a week as a construction worker so he could make the two-hour drive to City of Hope every Thursday night and provide Luciana with some break time.
Zuleika received radiation and high-dose chemotherapy before the transplant, helping to wipe out cancerous cells and make room for new bone marrow from her donor. It made her nauseous and tired, but Zuleika remained positive throughout her treatment. Her biggest desire was to get well so she could go home to be with her brother, Zack, and start kindergarten.
The Turning Point
On July 22, 2016, as Luciana prayed by Zuleika’s bedside for the transplant to work, Zuleika received new bone marrow via an intravenous tube from a donor she had never met, Rosendo Moreno. The corrections officer, who lived nearly 1,700 miles away in Harvard, Illinois, only knew that a 5-year-old girl with leukemia needed his healthy bone marrow to survive. City of Hope nurses and other staff lit candles on a birthday cake for Zuleika to celebrate her second chance at life.
The next weeks would also prove challenging. Zuleika’s body fought off the new bone marrow, creating a serious condition known as graft-versus-host disease (GVHD)
Zuleika couldn’t eat anything for almost three weeks. She was nauseous and vomited.
“It was the worst, but I never lost faith that she would get better,” said Luciana as she paused to hold back tears.
The turning point came, Luciana said, when Zuleika started to respond to medication for GVHD. In late October, just before Zuleika’s 6th birthday, Zuleika and Luciana left City of Hope.
“She would not be here today without [her donor],” Luciana added. “I thank God for him, for the doctors, the nurses, everyone who helped her. She is healthy now. I know I will see her grow up.”
Zuleika is now a happy and healthy 8-year-old girl who plays soccer, basketball and baseball. She’s in second grade.
Nearly three years after her transplant, Zuleika and her family will finally meet Moreno, Zuleika’s donor, at City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion on May 10.
“I love that there are still people like him that want to help other people. My daughter got a second chance at life. I’ve told him that I will never stop thanking him for what he did,” Juan Carlos Flores said.
“I feel excited to meet him,” Zuleika added. She looks forward to telling him, “Thank you for donating your bone marrow.”
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