Finding hope in tragedy

Mederos family appreciates community support after their daughter was diagnosed with cancer

One day, Sammy Mederos was a happy, 6-year-old girl playing soccer, climbing trees and enjoying kindergarten.

The next day, she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

“Our world literally changed overnight,” her mom, Michele said. “But one of the many things we learned was how real it is that in the face of tragedy, the best in humanity emerges.”

Co-workers from Canyon Creek Middle School and Cape Horn-Skye Elementary, where Michele is a school psychologist, rallied around Michele and her family, cleaning their house, cooking meals, running errands and organizing a benefit event for Sammy last spring, which raised $7,000 for her medical fund.

“Washougal School District employees surrounded our family with love and care,” she said.

After more than a year, Sammy is responding well to treatment and is now cancer-free.

She will have to continue a maintenance program until February 2012. It involves taking chemotherapy pills daily and having a spinal tap once a month to test for cancer.

Although all of this is rough, Sammy is overjoyed.

“I was really excited when I only had to do it (once a month),” she said. “It really hurt when I had to get those needles in my back,”

Sammy was silent for a minute, then looked up, her eyes wide.

“And it wasn’t a small needle, too,” she said. “It was a huge needle.”

Michele said after a few treatments, Sammy started to become very fearful.

“She started out as a real trooper and then developed extreme anxiety,” she said.

“That lasted for a few months. It was awful. We had to restrain her in order to do the treatments.”

Sammy’s dad, Dennis, described it as “devastating.”

“She was very sick for a long time,” he said, gazing at his daughter. “When the doctor told us she had cancer, it was like one of those surreal experiences. I think I left the hospital for eight hours all week.”

Sammy’s then 9-year-old sister, Sydney, helped out as well.

“I sat with her, laughed with her and just tried to keep her busy,” she said. “She’s an awesome little sister.”

After Sammy’s chemotherapy started getting really rough, she and Sydney enrolled in art therapy classes at Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital in Portland, where Sammy received treatments.

Sammy made a clay model of a patient with leukemia, using black clay for where the cancer was in the body. It also included bars made out of pipe cleaners, “Because I felt like I was in jail and couldn’t get out,” Sammy said. But she also put two charms on top of the jail, which represented hope.

“Art really helped me,” she said.

Today, Sammy is an active, happy first-grader who is looking forward to ending her cancer treatments and living a full life.

She still has a weakened immune system, and special precautions are taken at her school to help her stay healthy. For example, her classroom is frequently sterilized, a container of hand disinfectant is always nearby and parents have been asked to be extra cautious about sending ill children to school.

“Her teacher is great about it, and the other kids are really sweet,” Michele said.

Although it has been a tough year financially, physically and emotionally for the family, they are looking forward to the future, and thank everyone that helped them through this ordeal.

“There was such a massive outpouring of help, not only from the local community, but from organizations that help families in our situation,” Michele said. “I really discovered through my research that there are several out there for support.”

One of those organizations, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, has named Sammy as their “honored child,” for the 2011 Man & Woman of the Year campaign.

“The LLS is a major contributor toward cancer research and support and educational services for families,” Michele said. “So we are pretty excited.”

Both Michele and Dennis encourage families in similar situations to learn about the resources that are available to them.

The Mederos family and friends also organized a team to walk in the East County Relay for Life event, which benefits the American Cancer Society. They called themselves, “Sammy’s Rays of Sunshine.”

One of these walkers was Sammy’s tutor, Michael Lendvoyi, or Mr. Michael, as Sammy calls him. Since Sammy’s immune system was compromised, she was unable to attend school last year.

“She is a beam of light,” Lendvoyi said. “I came over to tutor one morning and Sammy wasn’t really having a good wellness day to start out with. Here’s the thing, this little girl who’s got a serious illness asked me, ‘Can I get you anything, Mr. Michael?’ How heartbreaking that was. She had the grace and the spirit to ask me if I needed anything. That is something special.”

He added that participating in the Relay for Life with the Mederos family was “really special.”

“I actually got a bit choked up during that event,” he said. “Seeing her there, on track with beating that cancer, that was amazing. Also, having beat cancer myself, I had never gone to one of those cancer events. I guess I never wanted to be reminded of it. The thing is, that event really helped me come to terms with my own cancer and story. Once again, Sammy gave me more than I ever could have done in the year I spent as her tutor.”

The Mederos family also participated in the “Shaving the Way to Conquer Kids’ Cancer,” event sponsored by the St. Balderick’s Childrens’ Cancer Foundation on May 2.

“And yes, we all shaved our heads,” Michele said. “Sammy thought it was pretty cool.”

Despite all they’ve been through in the past year, through Sammy, the family has found their ray of sunshine. They encourage others in similar situations to seek help from friends, co-workers and neighbors.

“People are willing and happy to do it,” Michele said. “They just need to know you need it. The best in humanity comes out with tragedy.”

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