Little Natali’s care after brain surgery puts a strain on her family

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Cancer Alliance of Help & Hope

In a cramped, run-down apartment next to Interstate 95, a cheerful menagerie of stuffed animals keeps watch over 7-year-old Natali Agustin-Gonzalez.

The 20 plush toys, most of them teddy bears given to her over the past year by doctors and nurses, are fastened along the top of Natali’s bedroom wall — a strategic spot because, well, space is scarce in the tiny home she shares with nine family members.

“She loves her teddy bears. It’s a comfort thing for her,’’ said Natali’s big sister, Mildre.

Comfort is a rare luxury for Natali and her family.

In early 2018, Natali was diagnosed with pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare, slow-growing brain tumor. She has undergone eight surgeries since last year to remove most of the tumor.

She has chemotherapy treatment every other week and relies on a feeding tube to survive.

Although doctors are optimistic about her future, she struggles every day because of a fragile immune system that requires her to be home-schooled and to wear a protective mask on visits to the playground at Howard Park.

But Natali’s physical condition is the latest personal challenge for the family.

Married for 21 years, her parents — Idalma Gonzalez and Roberto Agustin — came to the United States in 2001 and 2004 from Guatemala in search of a better life. In 2013, Idalma’s sister died while giving birth to a son.

Idalma and Roberto took custody of the sister’s four children, raising them as their own along with their own children — Natali, Mildre and Evy.

But Idalma suffers from a heart condition and is unable to work or care for the seven children. Roberto is the family’s sole provider from his meager salary as a landscaper.

Mildre, a 20-year-old single mom, had been contributing to the family’s income by working as a liquor-store clerk and cleaning a restaurant after hours.

But since Natali got sick, she quit those jobs to stay home as the family’s primary caregiver. She also drives Natali to and from doctors’ appointments.

Mildre almost always has a smile on her face as she dotes on the children. But she admits there are times when she’ll try to find a quiet spot in a back bedroom to shed a few tears.

“It’s tough. It’s a daily struggle for us,’’ she says, smiling as she wipes tears from her eyes. “But in spite of everything, we try to make it all work.’’
Their three-bedroom apartment is roughly 1,000 square feet. It has two bathrooms but only one toilet works. Several floor tiles are missing from the hallway floor.

Natali has her own room, a necessity because of the medical equipment set up next to her bed.

Mildre shares another bedroom with her 1-year-old son and three children.

In the parents’ bedroom, two other kids sleep on bunk beds next to a queen bed shared by Idalma and Roberto.

Cases of water, food and medical supplies share most of the apartment’s remaining floor space with the children’s toys.

Outside the apartment, the view to the west is a giant concrete wall that serves as a visual barrier to I-95 — the roar of the traffic, just 50 yards away, is easily heard from the front door.

“We really need a bigger place,’’ Mildre says, her eyes widening with excitement.

Aside from a new home, family would like to replace the 2006 Ford Explorer that has been used to take Natali to her treatments.

They also could use food, bedding and help with household bills.

Some day, if Natali recovers and the family’s situation improves, Mildre hopes to go to college to get a nursing degree.

Growing up, “I always wanted to be nurse,’’ she said. “But things happen. I had to put that off and not think about myself because Natali needs me.’’


Natali’s wish:

Natali Agustin-Gonzalez, 7, is fighting pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare, slow-growing brain tumor. She has undergone eight surgeries since last year to remove most of the tumor.

Although doctors are optimistic about her future, she has chemotherapy treatment every other week, relies on a feeding tube to survive and has a fragile immune system.

She shares a cramped, run-down apartment with nine family members. Her mother has a heart condition, leaving her big sister, Mildre, as the family’s primary caregiver, including round-the-clock care for Natali.

The family needs a larger apartment to accommodate the family and Natali’s special needs. The family could also use a new vehicle, along with food, bedding and help paying household bills.

Nominating agency: Cancer Alliance of Help & Hope

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