Meet Mario, surviving after chemo, radiation and stem cell transplant

Mario-PicWhen Mario suffered a concussion during a summer sports practice in July 2012, he thought it would be a quick recovery. By early August, the headache, nausea and fatigue had finally subsided. Mario finally felt back to normal, even if he wasn’t able to return to the football team.

A couple of weeks later, Mario started feeling fatigue in his knees, sharp pains in his back and heartburn. He tried to tough it out, but the pain became so intense that he finally told his parents, who took him to the family physician. When the doctor had the test results, she told them to pack a bag and go straight to Phoenix Children’s Hospital (PCH). Mario had leukemia – Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia – and he needed to start treatments right away. “When they told my mom that I had leukemia, I didn’t even know what it was,” Mario said, “I Googled it so I could learn more about it.”

Mario’s mom, Dora, was determined to see her son through this crisis. “I couldn’t leave his side, not even for a minute,” Dora said. “He’s my only son.” The rest of the family juggled their schedules so they could visit as often as possible.

Mario-QuoteInitially, Mario spent about 10 days in the hospital and started getting his chemotherapy treatments, along with some red cell and platelet transfusions. “The platelet transfusions came two bags at a time,” Dora said. “I wondered about the people who gave them and I prayed for them because they were giving my child the gift of life.”

He continued chemo and radiation treatments at PCH, starting with outpatient clinic visits and later during inpatient stays. When his counts were low, Mario received more red cell and platelet transfusions. In December, Mario began to run a fever and his blood pressure dropped. They made an immediate trip to the hospital. Mario was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit for seven days and stayed in the hospital another week.

Doctors then determined that Mario was a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant. None of his siblings was a match for him, so they relied on other resources to help their family. Then Mario and his family got some great news – they found two perfect matches in cord blood donations. He began immediate preparations for a stem cell transplant, also known as a bone marrow transplant.

Mario received high doses of his chemo and radiation to wipe out his immune system to get it ready to be replaced by the stem cells. Once the stem cells were ready, Mario received the transplant, which is like a blood transfusion. The nurses had never seen anything like it – Mario was riding a workout bicycle about an hour after his transplant!

For the next three months, Mario and Dora lived in the Ronald McDonald House to facilitate his daily clinic visits. Finally able to return home in August, Mario is looking forward to going back to school. “I am so grateful to blood donors,” he said. “They gave me a second life to live out my dreams.”

Mario-PopMario is a student at Dysart High School and plans to attend Northern Arizona University next year. He hopes to become a football coach one day. He and his family live in El Mirage.