While 15-year-old Renae Rodriguez is in varsity cheerleading, her younger sister, 11-year-old Laurissa Rodriguez, outranks her in karate.
The two siblings are both in karate, with Renae having earned her brown belt and Laurissa receiving a black belt. For Laurissa, the occasion was especially unique, considering she received the ranking while in a hospital bed at Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, where she was getting treatment for cancer miles away from their Mid-Valley home.
Since June, Lauraine Rodriguez, 50, had been taking her daughter to the doctor’s office because Laurissa had various pains throughout her body.
She recalls an instance where Laurissa said she felt little dots on the bottom of her feet. Attempting to aid her daughter’s pain, Lauraine noticed the bumps as well when she gave her daughter a foot massage.
“I’m the type of mom that anything strange with both my daughters, feeling sick, I take them right away to the pediatrician,” Lauraine said as Laurissa would express concern about headaches and leg pains.
Family members told Laurissa she was just experiencing growing pains. Pediatricians told Lauraine, with regard to a bump on Laurissa’s head, that something bit her, and to just ice down the bump.
The bump never went down and Laurissa continued experiencing pain throughout her body. Laurissa also showed unusual weight loss, despite being active at school and taking care of herself. Then, Lauraine noticed that Laurissa had trouble walking.
Taking her to doctors throughout the Rio Grande Valley, Lauraine said she couldn’t find anyone to diagnose Laurissa. So they thought it was a kidney stone.
On Sept. 22, Laurissa’s pain was so excruciating that she began to cry. At that point, Laurissa had several ultrasounds and X-rays performed, but never any MRIs despite Lauraine’s wishes. So, Lauraine took her to Valley Baptist Medical Center.
“Within two hours they are telling me, ‘We need to fly you or take you by ambulance to Driscoll Hospital in Corpus.’ I said, ‘Why? What’s wrong with my daughter?’ and they told me, ‘Your daughter has cancer,’” Lauraine recalled. “My whole world collapsed. I just collapsed.”
Several days later, on Sept. 26, which is also Lauraine’s birthday, they were given the news that her daughter had Neuroblastoma stage 4 cancer.
THE HOSPITAL EXPERIENCE
Days after her diagnosis, Laurissa had to undergo surgery on her spine to remove the tumor. In the same day, Laurissa had a port surgically implanted in her chest for the upcoming treatments and chemotherapy.
In San Antonio, Laurissa underwent surgery for stem cell collection. This required a pipe to be placed on the main artery, according to what the doctors told Lauraine. Resembling that of dialysis machine, the machine had to be attached to Laurissa in order for her cells to be collected.
So far, Laurissa has done three cycles of chemotherapy — two rounds lasting five days, while the third, and latest, round lasting three days.
The third round had the strongest chemotherapy administered, which gave Laurissa a bad reaction.
“She had a full-blown reaction to the chemo the first day. She gave me a scare because she was gasping for air. Her throat was closing and her whole face was red, her whole body was in rashes and hives. It was very, very scary,” Lauraine said.
After the third round, Laurissa struggled to eat or drink anything. Although her mother urged her to try to consume something, anything, Laurissa wouldn’t.
“I told her, ‘Don’t give up. Remember, you cannot let this beat you. You have to win. You have to fight this, Laurissa,’” Lauraine remembers telling her daughter.
Last Friday, Laurissa was administered a scan to check on the tumors. Some shrank, disappeared, and some were liquefied — meaning they’re melting away, according to what the doctors told Laurissa. However, it’s still not gone because the cancer reached Laurissa’s bone marrow.
As a result, Lauraine and Laurissa were sent to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth for radiation.
“Before all of this, she was a happy little girl, very outgoing. Ever since this, the doctors had to tell her (about the cancer diagnosis), she shut down. She, I guess you can say, went into a depression that she doesn’t want to talk to anybody, not even the doctors,” Lauraine said.
Laurissa wouldn’t speak or talk. Although Lauraine tells Laurissa that she needs to speak, she just nods or looks at her mother. When doctors ask her about any pain, Laurissa uses her hands to communicate.
After speaking with doctors, Lauraine found that Laurissa’s reluctance to speak is normal for some kids her age going through such a traumatic event.
“It’s very hard for me to get something out of her. If she’s in pain she tells me after the fact and I said, ‘You cannot do that. You have to tell the doctors or myself when you’re in pain,’” Lauraine said. “But my daughter, she’s very tough. She can take a lot of pain.”
Laurissa does speak to her friends and cousins. When Lauraine asked her why she doesn’t speak to any of the doctors, Laurissa said it’s because she doesn’t want to talk to any strangers or adults.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
During her hospital time, Laurissa enjoys painting and drawing. Lauraine encouraged her to write and express her feelings in a journal, which Laurissa does a lot now. In respect to her daughter’s privacy, Lauraine doesn’t read it unless Laurissa explicitly tells her.
Due to her involvement as a cheerleader around football season, Renae was unable to visit her sister for a month. Being unable to spend time with her older sister, Laurissa fell deeper into depression, Lauraine said. Now that football season is over and holiday season began, Renae was able to visit more.
“(Renae) has been taking it bad, too,” Lauraine said. “(The cancer) disrupted our whole family. We’re all separated.”
With Lauraine and Laurissa in Corpus Christi, Renae was sent to stay with Lauraine’s brother and sister-in-law, and their father Rene, 51, who’s staying in their Mid-Valley home alone.
Rene travels to Corpus Christi on the weekends. But he also drops everything to make sure he’s there for his daughter’s procedures or when she’s extremely sick.
What Laurissa mainly misses are her friends. When she was diagnosed, several of her friends sent her get-well letters and cards.
“She read every single card and I was looking at her face expression and it just meant the world to me. I felt like she felt like she’s loved and she’s being missed,” Lauraine said.
One day, one of Laurissa’s friends was able to visit her in Corpus.
“I saw my little girl again. I saw life go back into her. It was my daughter. She was talking away, giggling, laughing and I hadn’t heard or seen that in quite a while,” Lauraine recalled. “It’s like for a moment she forgot that she even had that disease. She was her old self with her friends.”
Aside from missing her family and friends at home, Laurissa also misses her home. However, she cannot come back to the Valley because of the severity of her cancer, which required a 14-month ordeal. As a result, she cannot be further than 15 minutes away from Driscoll Children’s Hospital.
Hoping to return for the holidays on Dec. 23, Laurissa cannot step foot in her home because of the mold situation. Lauraine and Rene have tried several times to get rid of the mold, such as cleaning, breaking down walls and buying new materials, but their home is old and they live outside the city limits.
“The doctors told us if there’s mold, she cannot go back there — to that house. All I asked … is this, the mold situation could be cleared,” Lauraine said. “My daughter wants to go back home and I say, ‘Ma, you can’t go back home. You can’t go back to that house if there’s mold.’”
Lauraine knows that Laurissa wants to be her normal self again. She wants to sleep in her own bed.
For Lauraine, the number one thing her family wants is for her daughter to be cancer free and back at home to return to her normal life. She receives support and prayers from her family and friends. In order for Laurissa to be able to enter her home again, the mold situation needs to be taken care of.
In addition to needing help removing mold from their home, the family could also use some new clothes. Laurissa wears size 7 shoes, small adult shirts and size 9 pants. Renae wears size 5 in shoes, small adult shirts and size 12 pants. Lauraine wears 8-and-a-half shoes, extra large shirts and size 14 pants. Renae wears size 8 shoes, large shirts and 32/30 inch pants.
For information on how you can donate to Lauraine’s family, call the United Way of South Texas at (956) 686-6331, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and inquire about contributing to the Spirit of Christmas campaign.
All donations go to the family. United Way does not keep any of the proceeds donated.