Emely held her infant son, Eduardo, in her arms when doctors in the Dominican Republic explained he had liver cancer that had spread to his lungs. They gave him weeks to live.
Her husband and her aunt, who had accompanied her to the doctor's office, became distraught. Emely, on the other hand, remembers not crying, and instead trusted her six-month-old baby would overcome the terrible diagnosis.
"I don't know how to explain it, but what I can say is that I had faith from the beginning to the end," Emely said.
She was willing to do anything to save her son's life. And for Eduardo, that meant traveling to the United States. Doctors referred his case to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital more than 1,600 miles away in Memphis, where doctors had experience treating other children with similar cancers.
Emely had never flown out of the Caribbean island. She had no travel visa or passport, but as a devout Catholic she prayed and left everything in God's hands, she said. It would be that way for two years while her son underwent chemotherapy, five operations and an induced coma.
"In every moment, I was calm, and full of faith, believing that things were going to be OK," Emely said.
No strength to laugh
Eduardo was thin and would not eat anything other than his mother’s breast milk. He had a distended stomach by the time he and his mother traveled to St. Jude the first days of November 2019. Once doctors ran tests, they told Emely he had a tumor on his liver that weighed about 3 pounds. He was anemic, dehydrated and he needed chemotherapy right away.
"He didn’t even have the strength to laugh, but somehow he still did," Emely said.
Eduardo soon developed complications. His body began to swell. He couldn’t get rid of the fluid accumulating in his tiny body on his own.
"He was like a basketball, retaining all the liquid that was given to him," Emely recalled.
The doctors induced a coma as they helped the boy get rid of the fluid. Emely waited for days at her son's bedside, holding his hand, praying and talking to him.
"The only thing I had to do was give him strength," she said. "I was at peace and calm with him so that the process would go well for him.”
By Thanksgiving, Eduardo was awake and seemed to improve.
"He couldn’t sit up very much because he still had a swollen belly, but he was laughing, and the nurses brought him balloons, which he loved, so in that week things were changing," she said.
She said St. Jude staff were supportive, especially in moments when Eduardo's sickness was at its worst. She felt comfort knowing she would never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food.
"Every one of the doctors, the nurses are angels sent by God, that is the way I see it; they opened the doors in a way that was so incredible to me," she said.
Two days before Christmas, Eduardo was allowed to leave the hospital. He and his mother, and his maternal grandmother, who traveled to Memphis from Pennsylvania, celebrated the holiday together at Target House, the long-term housing facility for patient families receiving treatment at St. Jude. They dined on rice, chicken and salad and surrounded Eduardo with stuffed animals and toy cars before they sang carols and took pictures of him to mark his first Christmas.
"I felt like it was the best Christmas, because I knew my son had overcome so many challenges up to that point," she said.
But the little boy's battle against cancer had just started.
Eduardo underwent surgery to remove the tumor in his liver. The 8-hour operation was successful though it required surgeons to remove most of Eduardo’s liver, Emely said.
Additional surgeries were soon scheduled for tumors on his right and left lung. More than a year after Eduardo's arrival in Memphis, doctors treated a new tumor in his right lung, Emely recalled.
By last summer, Eduardo was stable, with no additional tumors detected, and doctors said he could return to the Dominican Republic. He was two years old.
"We surprised everyone at home," Emely recalled. "Everyone was so happy, my grandmother couldn’t believe it, my aunt couldn’t believe that the Eduardo that she saw who was dying, was here — full of energy, eating and making mischief.”
Living life to the fullest
Eduardo and Emely have returned to Memphis three times since last summer for checkups.
"The cancer could return at any moment, but I remain faithful to God and I will continue to pray for God to keep him safe and healthy," she said.
Eduardo loves to play with his cousins and his toy cars, and is always happy and active, making the most of his days, his mother said.
He attends speech therapy, partly because when he first arrived in the Dominican Republic he had a hard time understanding words in Spanish. In Memphis, he was surrounded by a lot of English speakers, so sometimes he answers in English, his mother said.
"He may not speak well, but he has health and as a mother that’s all I can ask for," she said. "My son is alive, he has health, and he’s by my side. St. Jude helped me in every moment to have my child here and I will never get tired of saying it, St. Jude is a piece of heaven on earth."