Moments after the team of doctors had left the room at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, then 13-year-old Aleena Lopez looked at her mother, Heather.
“Mom,” she asked, “am I going to die?”
Heather and her mother, Marilyn—Aleena’s “nana”—still were in shock.
Just days before, it had been a normal summer for Aleena, Heather and Heather’s boyfriend of nine years, Ramon Miramontez.
Then in late July, Aleena began having headaches in the back of her head. She felt dizzy when she rose from sitting.
A family doctor checked her vital signs. Normal.
The doctor asked if she had double vision. She did not.
Without any other symptoms to go on, the doctor told Heather to monitor the situation.
On Aug. 2, Aleena attended a slumber party at a friend’s house. The headache returned. She threw up.
During the weekend, Aleena asked, “Mom, are my eyes crossed?”
She was seeing double of objects in the distance.
Heather took her back to the doctor that Monday.
An MRI showed a growth in her head.
Aleena was put into an ambulance and taken to American Family Children’s Hospital.
That Thursday, Aleena and her family were told it was cancerous. Because it is in Aleena’s brain stem, an operation is not possible.
‘Not an option’
“I don’t care what we have to do, we cannot lose this child,” Heather’s sister April posted on Facebook that day. “We can’t. This is not an option.”
For the next 37 days, American Family Children’s Hospital was home for Aleena and Heather. Mother never left her side, sleeping next to Aleena’s bed in a recliner as her daughter struggled with the pain associated with her treatments.
Aleena underwent four surgeries. One inserted a drain from her brain.
She received nourishment from a feeding tube that went through her nose. Aleena had a difficult time swallowing, which limited her ability to talk.
Aleena stayed strong.
On Aug. 20, she got the OK to eat her favorite french fries.
After sessions of physical therapy, she regained her strength to sit up, then to walk with a walker.
A few UW-Madison football players visited her Sept. 6, delivering a UW T-shirt and signed card from the team.
Finally, on Sept. 10, Aleena and Heather got to return to their Janesville home to rejoin Aleena’s 18-year-old brother and Heather’s son Chase.
The next day, Aleena turned 14. She celebrated by visiting her classmates at Marshall Middle School.
Last Monday, a Gazette reporter visited.
“Fine,” she said quietly when asked how she was doing. She sat back in a recliner in her family’s living room, covered in a blanket.
Aleena admitted she was down during portions of her hospital stay.
“But now I’m, like, normal, I guess,” she said.
Heather attributed Aleena’s emotional moments to the steroids she had to take.
“She’s now on a maintaining mode because she’s doing so well on the steroids,” Heather said.
“She’s not much of crier; doesn’t really show her feelings much, but she really struggled with that.”
Aleena gets most of her nourishment through a “G tube” inserted into her stomach.
She takes up to 18 doses of medication a day, all charted and distributed by Heather, who is on unpaid leave from her job at Grainger.
Another one of Aleena’s favorite foods—cool ranch Doritos—have to be chewed carefully.
Signs of support
One thing hasn’t changed. Aleena’s phone is always by her side.
“That’s like her lifeline for her friends’ support,” Heather said.
Her friends visit. Three of them—Alayna Blevins, Anna Grover and Addi Wobig—created a “Team Aleena” GoFundMe page that as of Friday had raised $3,860. The goal is $4,000.
When she arrived home from her last radiation treatment Friday, there were dozens of cards for her, thanks to a card drive initiated by family relative William Case. Those were added to the many she had received while in the hospital.
It was just one display of the support Aleena has received the past six weeks.
The Janesville YMCA eighth-grade volleyball team opened its season a week ago Thursday. Instead of being one of the top players on the court as she has been since the fourth grade, Aleena watched on the sidelines.
Teammates gave her a green T-shirt with “Aleenastrong” on the back. They all signed a volleyball that she took home.
Now that her six weeks of radiation treatments are done, Aleena and family will wait about a month before another MRI to check the status of the tumor.
“All we can do is take it one day at a time,” Marilyn said.
Aleena is now part of a team bigger than the volleyball team she had looked forward to playing with this fall.
“I always remind her there are a lot of people praying for her and thinking positively for her,” Heather said. “People she doesn’t even know.”