By Sonja Isger
The Palm Beach Post
When 4-year-old Iker Vasquez recovered from surgery, he pointed to what he calls the happy face scar on his belly, so much like the one on his mother’s, and asked her if the doctor had taken a baby out of his tummy.
When, after chemotherapy, his dark locks came from his head by the fistful, the little boy grabbed his baby sister’s curls and tugged. Why didn’t hers come loose as well?
And at the end of each day, when he wails at the mere prospect of his mommy jabbing another needle in his thigh, he cries. But when tears slide down her cheeks, too, he looks confused and consoling. “Why are you crying?”
He knows a fraction of the story. “I tell him he’s a little bit sick,” says his mother. “I tell him the hair will be back.”
She doesn’t tell him that it wasn’t a baby the doctor took, but a kidney, with a tumor glommed to it. Or that the tumor, when found, was broken, potentially sending cancerous invaders cascading through his tiny body.
“Sometimes it’s too hard to explain to a little baby,” Veronica Vasquez says.
Managing single parenting was challenge enough. With the support of her brothers and sisters, she navigated motherhood while working 50 or 60 hours a week at a local grocery. Then came a pandemic. And then came Easter Sunday, spent not at her parent’s home, but at the hospital with a little boy felled by an unrelenting fever and a pain in his side so powerful he couldn’t stand, much less walk.
Vasquez is a natural mom, filled with smiles and warmth. She’s kind and steady, but lately that composure can falter in a heartbeat.
“This is too hard,” she says.
Easter Sunday was particularly hard. The day before Vasquez left work and fetched her babies from her mother’s house. Vasquez had brought home fish for dinner, and when Iker first protested, “Mommy, my belly, I have pain,” she thought he was just trying to get out of eating the fish.
Then he threw up. A little Tylenol and off to bed. He slept in. But he woke unable to walk. When a fever rose, they went to Palms West Hospital. Doctors looked at Iker’s belly and detected a lump.
A biopsy eventually revealed a growth on his kidney, the kind that strikes only children called a Wilms tumor. About 500 new cases of Wilms tumors surface every year in the U.S. And the prognosis, when found early, can be good.
But finding the tumor broken up inside Iker’s belly wasn’t good and demanded a more rigorous medical response, including both chemotherapy and radiation. The boy who checked in on Easter, April 12, didn’t check out until 19 days later.
Protecting a child whose body has been rendered defenseless during a cancer battle is never easy.
A pandemic added new layers of challenge. Work, childcare, exposure to anyone outside their tight threesome became more daunting.
Iker’s treatment schedule, five-day hospital stays every 21 days for six months and weekly day-long hospital visits in between, mean Vasquez has had to dial back her work hours to maybe 25 or 30 hours a week. Her paycheck has shrunk accordingly — even as bills mount.
Vasquez, 29, has become expert at soothing her children and hiding the stress.
When Iker is feeling up to it, they head to a nearby park aiming for off hours when other children don’t crowd the slide and swings.
They go for walks in their neighborhood. At home, Vasquez puts on some music, and Iker dances across the room.
For Halloween, Iker trick-or-treated through the hospital dressed as a skeleton. Bags of candy sit by the dining table awaiting the day when the blisters in his mouth — caused by treatment — fade.
The skeleton costume is in the same theme as his favorite movie, “Coco,” Disney’s animated film inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday. The story centers on a boy who wishes to be a musician and tracks his deceased father on the other side. (Iker has Mexican roots as well, his mother was born there and moved to the U.S. to be with her father when she was 16.)
Vasquez, Iker and 1-year-old Kylee live in a modest single-wide trailer home in suburban West Palm Beach. Though Iker has his own room, he and the baby have been sleeping with mom so that she can wake every couple hours to monitor Iker’s temperature — as his treatment requires.
Such a fever sent him back to the hospital for three days earlier this month. After being cleared for both the flu and COVID-19, Iker’s fever eventually fell and the family returned home — another work day missed.
The used 2004 Ford Expedition Vasquez drives is no longer dependable. On top of guzzling gas, sometimes it doesn’t start. The air conditioning no longer works. She borrows her mother’s car for hospital trips rather than expose Iker to the heat.
Months of treatment still lie ahead. Vasquez’ eyes well up contemplating how she will manage both a boy with cancer and his toddler sister with less work and only family for childcare.
Iker, meanwhile, is looking forward to the day when his hair grows back, when he can eat that candy…and spaghetti and Chinese food and chicken, instead of liquid supplements. He’s also eager for Christmas. His top wish? “I want to give Santa cookies and milk.”
Iker Vasquez, 4, is fighting kidney cancer, specifically a Wilms tumor. He has undergone surgery to remove one kidney and the growth. He has endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and will undergo radiation as well in an effort to kill any rogue cancer cells elsewhere in his body.
His mother, Veronica Vasquez, has cut her work hours in half in order to take Iker to weekly appointments and stay with him when he does his monthly five-day, in-hospital treatment. Help paying the utility, rent and insurance bills would ease the family’s burden.
Vasquez’ 2004 Ford, necessary for all those appointments, is also in need of repair or replacement. Vasquez could also use a laptop to help manage her household. The family’s only computer is a shared iPad, that Iker uses to entertain himself when confined for days at a time — thanks to COVID — to his hospital room. Another computing device would help the family during those times.
Nominating agency: Kids Cancer Foundation.
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