PERRYVILLE¿— A cancer diagnosis can be devastating for the most world-weary adult. When it is a young child, it can be downright seismic for a family and an entire community
"You're going along and things seem perfectly fine and then something like this comes and tears your whole life up," said Vicki Ruiz. "If someone told me, 'Vicki, you have cancer,' it's different. I'm old enough to make sense of that. He's a child and he's just too young. He's just too young. He hasn't lived the life he's supposed to live yet."
Ruiz's 3-year-old grandson, Bradlee Aguilar-Moreno of Perryville, has been at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis since Aug. 30 being treated for an aggressive form of cancer called anapestic ependymoma. In addition to seeking answers about how to best fight the disease, Ruiz is organizing an auction set for Nov. 18 to help Bradlee's parents, Tonya Cole Aguilar-Moreno and her husband Rodrigo Aguilar-Moreno, pay for the mounting costs of treatment.
Ruiz said Bradlee had been sick for almost six months without a definitive explanation until Aug. 9 when her daughter called her to say the child wouldn't wake up. When he was rushed to the emergency room at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center they realized he would need more intensive treatment and sent him to University of Kentucky Children's Hospital, where they first found fluid on his brain.
Bradlee then went to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, where he spent his third birthday and part, but not all, of his brain tumor was removed. After treatment began, the family decided that St. Jude would better suit their needs and they have been there ever since.
Although he is enduring an insidious illness he can't even comprehend, Ruiz said something remarkable has happened to a boy who always had been somewhat shy and reserved. Despite his treatments and the newness of his surroundings, Bradlee has started to express himself like never before.
"At St. Jude he's like a little unofficial greeter," Ruiz said. "He shakes everyone's hand and takes people around and shows them things. He wants to talk to everybody."
Ruiz said a cruelly ironic part of the situation is that Bradlee's parents are unable to work as bills that would be difficult to pay anyway continue to mount. As the financial reality looms ever larger, it has become less important than being there for their child, and Bradlee and his parents have moved in to one of St. Jude's residences while siblings Bailee, 6, and Emma, 5, stay with Ruiz’s ex-husband and his wife in Perryville.
Ruiz said her daughter and son-in-law have remained optimistic, but they fast became aware of the highs and lows of people in similar circumstances from watching people receive good news and also leave the hospital after hearing the worst.
"Being by yourself getting bad news, even when it is something smaller, is not a good thing," Ruiz said. "They are there supporting Bradlee, but they are also there supporting each other."
While Tonya and Rodrigo attend to Bradlee, family in Kentucky and beyond are motivated to do more than wait for word of the daily triumphs and setbacks. They have been furiously working to get the auction organized.
Ruiz's sister, Tina Mathis, who works for Jared Jewelers in Medina, Ohio, has actually been donating to St. Jude along with others in her company for years. She has enlisted co-workers' help in addition to making bracelets with Bradlee's name on them.
Mathis also used the Internet to connect people with Bradlee's story, logging on to the website Wish Upon a Hero and requesting prayers and words of encouragement for Bradlee. Cards have started to come in from all over the country, including a weekly message from a woman in Arizona the family has never met.
Ruiz said there has been an outpouring of donations for the auction as well, with people donating glass, cast iron pieces, furniture, gift baskets of bath and body products and even the venue at the Perryville American Legion Post. She made the trip to her brother's home in Pennsylvania on Thursday to load up a truck with some of his antiques to bring back for the auction as well.
As the adults try to make sense of the situation and deal with the realities of the bottom line, though, Ruiz said there is a little boy in Memphis who has more important things to worry about.
"He wants to play all the time, whether he's at the hospital or around where they are staying. Cancer is just not on his agenda. He's too busy being a kid."