Español | English
Mayela rose early one recent August morning and put on her school uniform.
She was excited to be going back to school. She was starting sixth grade, and she was happy to see her friends again. She was looking forward to class projects and playing with friends at recess.
This was her last year before middle school and all the angst that comes with that. But all that’s next year.
This year, as she put on her colorful bookbag filled with new school supplies, she also felt a bit nervous. She was assigned a new teacher this year — one she’d never met. Her parents, Karen and Angel, empathized with their daughter’s mixed emotions, but they were grateful for the normalcy. After all, most of Mayela’s elementary school experience had been anything but typical.
Five years earlier, in 2018, Mayela was treated for leukemia at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital®, thousands of miles from their home in Puerto Rico. That year, there was no back-to-school shopping or excitement about seeing friends.
They just wanted their little girl to live.
“It’s such a joy to take your child to their first day of school, to meet their teachers, to see them walk away with their bookbag and lunch bag, and this was totally different,” Karen recalled.
Instead, Mayela’s first day of first grade was in a hospital room after receiving a bone marrow transplant. A Spanish-speaking teacher provided by St. Jude sat at Mayela’s bedside. They reviewed lessons while Mayela was connected to an IV with her baby doll beside her.
Mayela was enrolled in a school program, now called The St. Jude Imagine Academy by Chili’s. The teachers at St. Jude provide individualized instruction for patients in grades K-12 who are at St. Jude for an extended period.
“Thank God for the educational program offered at St. Jude because Mayela was able to continue to take classes and be in step with her classmates back home,” her mother said.
Mayela, who is always smiling, does not remember the classes she took at St. Jude, although she does remember her teacher, who she visits when she returns for annual checkups. She prefers to talk about what is ahead and her daily activities at home located on the Caribbean coast of Puerto Rico.
She recently celebrated her 11th birthday and returned from “the best trip” of her life in the Dominican Republic, where she got to swim with dolphins, splash around on a water slide and create lasting memories with her mom and dad.
“I’m happy,” said Mayela, who aspires to be an interior designer. “I have great parents who support me in all I do, and physically I am doing really well. I have energy and I do not feel tired, and I am always active.”
As she sat recently in her bedroom, where the walls are painted light pink and lilac, Mayela talked about her hobbies and life after treatment at St. Jude.
She swims regularly and is working to improve her aim in air gun shooting. She is following in the footsteps of one of her older cousins who has excelled in the sport.
Mayela has also become a small business owner. She makes colorful bracelets with hearts, faces and other shapes, and creates her own soaps with a variety of scents like lavender, oatmeal and honey.
“I started to sell them at school and then to neighbors, then to my friends and then to my friends’ parents until everyone learned about it,” she said.
A new start
When Mayela was 5 years old, she was full of energy and eager to play and try new things. She enjoyed dancing, singing and playing with her cousins. At her dad’s birthday party in 2018, her parents noticed she seemed lethargic, and she asked to go to bed early.
They took her to the doctor and Mayela was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML. In AML, white blood cells, produced in bone marrow, are abnormal and do not become healthy cells. These abnormal cells crowd out the normal ones, so the patient’s body has a harder time fighting off infection.
Only about 500 children are found to have AML in the U.S. each year.
“It was heartbreaking news,” Angel recalled. “I like to solve everything, but at that moment it was not in my hands. I could not resolve this situation for my daughter.”
Doctors in Puerto Rico referred Mayela to St. Jude.
“The most difficult thing was to know that there was no treatment for Mayela on our island .... For me, it was difficult because I had never lived anywhere else, and we had to, like they say, cross the pond to be able to seek healing,” Karen said.
Even though they had to leave their home, Karen and Angel were grateful they did not receive a bill from St. Jude for their daughter’s treatment. No family ever receives a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food — so they can focus on helping their child live.
Mayela was treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy before she received a bone marrow transplant. Her father was her donor.
“I was full of joy and emotion, and grateful for St. Jude because without St. Jude that donation would not be possible,” Angel said.
The family was at St. Jude for six months before Mayela was able to return home. She completed first grade by being homeschooled in Puerto Rico as she continued to recover.
Mayela went back to school in the summer of 2019 to start second grade. She had to wear a mask that she changed a few times during the day and carried an extra bag to carry sanitizing wipes and alcohol.
And then in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Mayela to take classes virtually. She remained at home, taking classes for more than a year, and then went on a hybrid schedule. In 2022, she returned to school to full-time, in-person instruction but with precautions.
“For us, it was a joy that she returned to classes because here at home she missed many activities and socializing with her friends,” her mother said.
As Mayela begins her last year as an elementary school student before she heads to middle school, her mother and father revel in each milestone.
“First days of school, first communion, everything that Mayela does reminds us how blessed we are,” her mother said.