Emmanuel, a St. Jude Children's Research Hospital eye cancer survivor, graduated high school this year. In this letter to Emmanuel, his mom, Regina, shares her pride in him as he begins college.
Regina was a breast cancer survivor working in healthcare when Emmanuel was diagnosed with eye cancer as a 4-year-old. She calls St. Jude a "community of hope" and credits Emmanuel's child life specialists for his can-do optimism after his left eye was removed. Emmanuel has gone on to be a standout student and athlete.
To my son Emmanuel,
Before you were even born, I fell in love with you. The day I first heard your heartbeat, you became an extra chamber in my heart. The nine months I carried you, growing inside me, only increased my love.
The day you entered this world, when I saw your tiny face and heard your first cry, my love grew still further. The long nights of waking up every two hours to feed you and change your diaper were all worth it.
Watching you say your first words and take your first steps: All your milestones and accomplishments were proud, full moments.
Then, when you were 4, during a visit to the optometrist, life came to a standstill.
I heard the doctor utter these words while looking into your eye with her little glass lens, “I see a tumor, and it’s advanced.”
I heard someone say, “Shall we call her an ambulance?”
After regaining what tiny bit of composure I had left, the doctor explained she was sending us to see an ophthalmologist, which confirmed not only that it was a tumor, but also that it was a cancerous tumor with a big name: retinoblastoma.
On the way to the appointment here in Texas, I was accompanied by my sister and my aunt, whose calming spirit brought me peace during the heartbreaking moment the doctor told us he was referring us to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Two days later, you and I were on a plane en route to Memphis. Even though my heart was crumbling and I was saddened by the fact that neither you nor I had any idea of what would become of your life, hearing you giggle as the plane climbed in altitude made me forget about it all for a moment. You giggled so loudly the other passengers began to giggle, too.
Once we arrived at St. Jude, we were greeted by your dad, who drove in from Houston, and the hospital staff, who made us feel welcomed. Later that night after we got you settled in, I remembered looking at you and not knowing your destiny. I prayed and I cried until my faith was strengthened.
The next day, during your first appointment with the surgeon, your dad and I made one of the hardest decisions of our lives. After he examined you and explained to us the treatment for retinoblastoma and what would be in your best interest, we made the decision to have your eye removed. After further evaluation, we learned the tumor was encapsulated in the eye. Therefore, no chemotherapy or radiation was needed. Only God knew how grateful we were.
The child life specialist did such an amazing job in aiding in your self-confidence. I thank God that throughout your school years I never had to worry about you being bullied. Your confidence in yourself was — and still is — astonishing.
I never received any bad reports of your behavior at school, and your grades were always top notch. By grade 7, you started playing sports. Your love and passion for football and track allowed you to work extra hard and excel in all areas. I watched as you would go to football practice twice a day when only once was mandatory. I’d listen to the clank-clank noise coming from your room as you were lifting weights. You have always been focused and determined since you were a little boy.
I’m thankful you didn’t run the streets and party. You weren’t tempted by the pressure of your peers. Instead, your love for God allowed you to be a leader, not a follower. You’re very selective of those you call friends and those you call associates. Your faith in God is authentic. You love church and read your Bible daily. You’ve even encouraged me to go to church during times my faith was flagging.
On May 25, you achieved another great accomplishment in your life as you walked across that stage and received your high school diploma, turning the page to the next chapter of your life as you further your education and football and track endeavors at Dakota State University in South Dakota. I’m going to miss cheering you on from the bleachers, but I’ll pick up where I left off at your college and NFL games.
I’m going to miss you, son, but I take comfort in knowing we’re just a plane flight away. I’m extremely proud of you, and I’ll always be your number-one fan.
I'm eternally grateful for the entire staff at St. Jude for the excellent care they provided. We’ve never received a bill for the 14 years of your care, and because of that I will keep encouraging others to donate so the next child may have the same opportunity you’ve had to live a healthy life.
I’ll always love you, son.