October 31, 2018 | by Samantha Bonar
When we checked in with young Chris Leal last March, he was experiencing two momentous milestones: a famous Hollywood costume designer had just crafted a custom superhero costume for him. And he was about to undergo a stem cell transplant for his acute myeloid leukemia.
Now Chris, who had spent most of his first two years in the hospital, is finally home, playing with his favorite trains and taking walks with his dad. On Oct. 30, he returned to City of Hope to join other pediatric cancer patients for the annual Pediatric Halloween Parade. He chose a Buzz Lightyear costume for this outing.
Diagnosed just after his first birthday in February 2017, Chris initially underwent five rounds of grueling chemotherapy over eight months at a hospital near his home in Lakewood, California.
He was finally discharged from the hospital last October, only to relapse by January 2018. At that point, his parents brought him to City of Hope for a potentially lifesaving stem cell transplant. Chris entered the hospital on Feb. 26, began his pretransplant chemotherapy on March 1 and received his transplant April 3. He remained hospitalized for almost another 10 weeks.
Despite the serious nature of the transplant, things went much better than expected, said his mom, Ruth. For one thing, before he received his transplant, Chris got a surprise visit at City of Hope from "Aquaman" costume designer Kym Barrett, who worked with him to create his ideal superhero costume, a hospital procedure-friendly orange-and-blue outfit complete with a cape and mask.
Even better than that, Chris didn’t suffer the side effects from his stem cell transplant that his doctor assumed he would. “It went better than expected,” Ruth said. “The doctor was expecting him to get sick. They were expecting him to get fevers and infections, but he didn’t get any of that.”
Because his donor was not a perfect match, Chris did develop graft-versus-host disease, however, which led to mouth sores and some digestive issues. Because of the sores, he stopped eating for three weeks and was on IV nutrition. “But after those three weeks, he was good,” Ruth said. “You could tell he was back to his normal self — he was laughing, he was playing, he was eating again, drinking.” The first food he requested? “Pepperoni pizza.”
Chris remained hospitalized for 35 days, then was discharged to Hope Village for another 25 days. “Then he got to go home” with oral medications, Ruth said.
For a month, he returned to the hospital twice a week for bloodwork and other tests. Now he’s down to once every two weeks. Chris doesn’t mind going to City of Hope for visits. “They’re always attentive. They’re always on top of everything. They welcome you like you’re family,” Ruth said. “He knows all the nurses by their names. It’s nothing strange to him.”
It took super strength for such a young guy to overcome so much, so it’s only appropriate that Chris still wears his superhero costume around the house. But Ruth says she won’t feel ready to exhale until Chris reaches the one-year mark post-transplant. Until then, “We take it one day at a time,” she said, but “I’m pretty good, seeing that he’s good.”