Fort Worth, Texas,
14:50 PM

Living With Cancer During Covid-19

Four year old diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia as pandemic migrated to Texas

After battling fevers for three months, Isabel and Ignacio Rodriguez took their son Matt to his local pediatrician. His physician took blood work and consulted with Cook Children’s oncologist Kenneth Heym, M.D.

“His pediatrician said he didn’t look good, and she recommended we drive to the emergency room at the downtown location,” Isabel said. “Something wasn’t right with this blood work.”

Isabel, Ignacio and Matt arrived at Cook Children’s on Feb. 13, 2020. After more testing, Matt was admitted to the oncology unit. The on-call physician gave the family the devastating diagnosis of leukemia.

“She said he had probably been in some bone pain for a while, and we just didn’t know. She went on to tell us that Matt most likely had leukemia, but we didn’t know what kind yet,” Isabel said. “He had a bone marrow biopsy the next morning, and we found out which type he had. It all happened so fast.”

Matt received the formal diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) on Feb. 14, five days after his fourth birthday.

“I remember we spent Valentine’s Day in the hospital cafeteria together after Matt was confirmed to have ALL and had his port placed. None of this really sank in until much later,” Ignacio said. “I still remember asking his doctor, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure this is what it is?’, and they were more than sure.”

Matt’s diagnosis already came with uncertainty and a heightened awareness for his health, but COVID-19 only heightened his parents’ worries and created more isolation.

“It’s been terrifying to go through this at all, because his ability to fight any kind of infection is depleted and his immune system is so vulnerable,” Ignacio said. “Now you have this virus that limits everyone from being out and you’re scared that you might come into contact with someone who has it, then you give Matt a hug and now he may have it too.”

Quarantine takes on a new meaning for oncology patients and their families. COVID-19 has forced parents to make difficult decisions for the safety of their families, including isolation from other patient families.

“A lot of other families that we’ve talked to who are also going through this diagnosis say they are use to the isolation, but when you add the extent of the COVID isolation to this it becomes very difficult to handle,” Ignacio said. “Things don’t seem to get any easier through this pandemic. It’s just a matter of waiting for this to pass.”

A sense of unpredictability is anticipated with a cancer diagnosis, but Ignacio and Isabel hoped for a community within the oncology floor. While they do have that with the nurses, child life specialists and staff members, they yearn for relationships with other parents who have similar experiences.

“We expected to have that camaraderie with other parents on the unit, but COVID has just made it to where we can only get that connection through social media or Zoom,” Ignacio said. “You just don’t have that right now. Matt got this diagnosis at the worst possible time with COVID.”

While many have adjusted to their new normal during the pandemic, Matt’s treatment regimen has prolonged the adjustment as he is on week 14 of 120 at the time of this article.

“Everything that we do now is trying to find that sense of normalcy for our family,” Ignacio said. “Financially finding that balance, scheduling appointments for Matt and making sure our other kids still have a life outside of Matt’s cancer diagnosis. We can’t just stop living.”

Cancer amidst COVID-19 has given the Rodriguezes a renewed outlook on placing importance on their family. Although they may feel isolated from their community, the time they spend together as a family is now more valuable than ever.

“We enjoy every moment we have with our kids. I hate COVID, but I’m thankful that I’ve been able to have them all home with me,” Isabel said. “We realize every moment that Matt is okay is important, and we’re amazed at everything he’s still able to do. We treasure those moments more than before.”


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