A local family sheds light on childhood cancer.
By: Stephanie Kusy
Photos by: Paul Marshall
While celebrating Alondra Vela-Gamez’s 2nd birthday in Mexico, family members noticed she was not feeling well. Fatigue, with a slight fever and what looked like a few bug bites on her arms did not initially concern her parents, Drs. Ben Vela and Carla Gamez-Vela. After they returned from their trip and Alondra started coughing, her mother decided to take her to a clinic. The doctor said she appeared fine, but did not like Alondra’s pale complexion and those mysterious bug bites. She ordered blood work and sent the family home, assuring them they would have the results within a couple days.
Carla got the call two hours later. “They just said that I needed to take her to the hospital,” she recalls. “I did not really know what was going on. First off, I was not expecting that call, and I did not know what they were talking about.”
Lab work revealed Alondra was severely anemic. Stressed out and beginning to panic, Carla quickly packed a bag and made the drive that still haunts her to Driscoll Children’s Hospital. A medical team awaited their arrival. The doctor waited for her to husband to arrive before delivering heartbreaking news.
“The doctor did not say anything at first,” says Carla, as her voice becomes uneasy. “They just checked her out, her lymph nodes and spleen. Then the doctor just looked us in the eyes and says she has leukemia. That is the last thing I remember. It is a blur. My husband and I could not really talk about it. It’s weird. You just want to hold the baby and hold each other and ask a lot of questions, but you do not even know what to ask.”
Leukemia, the most common type of cancer in children, affects the white blood cells. Abnormal white blood cells form in the bone marrow. They quickly travel through the bloodstream and crowd out healthy cells. That night, Alondra had four blood transfusions to prepare her for surgery the next day. She would go on to spend the next eight days at Driscoll before beginning a long road of intense treatments.
Amidst the terror of learning their toddler had cancer, something extraordinary also happened. Several prayer groups began forming; most notably, a group of 20 women in Carla’s hometown of Acuña, Mexico, gathered to pray for the child the day she went in for surgery. To this day, these women still congregate to pray together every Wednesday.
Carla’s strong Catholic faith helped her and the family make it through these difficult months. With the exception of doctors’ appointments, Carla, Alondra and newborn daughter, Loriana, rarely left their home since treatments made Alondra especially susceptible to illness. They constantly sanitized their home and even converted their living room into an indoor park, filled with toys and trampolines.
Carla’s mother moved in to help during the first year of intense treatments. Carla’s husband, a local dentist who owns Vela Dental Centers, cut back on hours to tend to his daughter. Everyone made sacrifices. Since family and friends could rarely visit, Carla says they would often leave food and other items on their front porch.
“I never questioned my faith, but after all the support and all the love, I think our Lord was in need of prayer,” Carla says. “I think He was missing that, so he chose her because he knew a lot of prayer would come from it.”
Carla often referred to her favorite Bible verses for comfort. Her family would come together and pray Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” While her faith remained strong, she still could not understand how her daughter got cancer. The Gamez-Vela family lives a healthy lifestyle, often eating organic produce. Carla says she has never smoked nor drank alcohol. It still baffles her. “It makes me feel special and honored that He chose her, but it’s still hard to accept,” she says. “It brought us closer as a family. It made us not take life for granted.”
Thankfully, Alondra responded positively to treatment. After receiving infusions for nine months she began taking chemo pills orally. Her beautiful, big, expressive, light-brown eyes never stopped sparkling. “Alondra loved going to the doctor,” Carla says. “She was very polite. She would always tell the nurse ‘thank you’ after they poked her.”
Two years, two months, and three days after the initial diagnosis, Alondra completed treatment. In November 2015, doctors declared her cancer free. “It was a life-changing experience,” Carla says. “You don’t know until you’re there. Not that I want anybody to be there, but you don’t understand the extent of how it affects the parents and extended family. It hurts deep inside. I cried so much, and I still cry.”
These days, it is more tears of joy. The Vela-Gamez family welcomed their third daughter, Paulina, last August. Alondra, now 4, still doesn’t understand she is a cancer survivor. She recently enrolled in prekindergarten and proudly shows other students her port where doctors once injected a potent concoction that saved her life. For now, she doesn’t understand, and Carla is OK with that. Instead of explanations, the Vela-Gamez family bows their head and says a prayer.