Miraculous gifts: Children's philanthropy supports pediatric patients, inspires research

Yaya and Nina Garcia © UC Regents
Yaya Garcia and her mother Nina

Posted Feb. 24, 2010

Nina Garcia can't hold back tears as she recounts what happened the day Yaya, her 10-year-old daughter, was taken by ambulance to UC Davis Children's Hospital.

The Woodland fifth grader had been feeling sick on and off for almost a month. Thinking it was growing pains, her mother had kept Yaya comfortable with Tylenol, but her temperature had reached 104.3 degrees.

"The doctors didn't have any answers at first – they just knew something was wrong," Garcia recalls of that day in March 2007. After doctors had run a series of tests, Garcia spotted a note on Yaya's chart about leukemia. The next day, the diagnosis was confirmed: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a common and fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells.

"It was almost like it wasn't real," Garcia says. "I didn't know what would be ahead of us."

What lay ahead was two and a half years of cancer treatment for Yaya provided by a pediatric cancer team at UC Davis Children's Hospital, a group that included a "child-life specialist" to help guide Yaya through her ordeal.

The contributions of child-life specialist Amber Hall were made possible with a grant from the Children's Miracle Network, a philanthropy with a mission to improve the health and well-being of hospitalized children by supporting patient care, research and education for patients, providers and the public.

"Any time we had questions we got answers, and if I had doubts, the staff would give me peace of mind. I can't tell you how much that helped out."
— Nina Garcia, Yaya's mother

UC Davis Children's Hospital is one of nine Children's Miracle Network hospitals in California. The organization adds needed funds to power the arsenal of hope that inspires researchers at UC Davis to find new and better cancer treatments for children such as Yaya.

It also supports an extraordinary variety of programs that make UC Davis a key resource in Northern California for young cancer patients. At UC Davis Cancer Center, pediatric hematology and oncology physicians diagnose and treat more than 400 children with all types of malignancies, including leukemia, every year.

After completing several rounds of chemotherapy, Yaya is now cancer free and thriving at school with her peers.

Nina Garcia says the people at Children's Hospital were so friendly, they seemed like family. "Any time we had questions we got answers, and if I had doubts, the staff would give me peace of mind," she says. "I can't tell you how much that helped out."

Dr. Taylor © UC Regents
In a laboratory near the UC Davis Cancer Center, Douglas Taylor (pictured) and physicists Thomas Huser and James Chan are working to develop a quick and reliable diagnostic techinque to identify cancer types.

The cancer center has used CMN funding to staff pediatric art therapy programs for young cancer patients as well as for the child-life specialists who teach children coping strategies before and during treatment procedures.

Hall, the specialist who worked with Yaya, helped ease her anxiety during her leukemia treatment, which included lumbar punctures and bone marrow aspiration.

"Every time Yaya had a procedure, Amber would help Yaya deal with her emotions," Garcia recalls. "Yaya might hold things in and say everything was okay, and Amber would help her express what she was feeling."

Yaya's diagnosis was devastating for the Garcia family, but fortunately her disease was very curable, Hall says. "They've shown by their example that no matter the tragedy of a dreadful illness, you can battle emotionally and spiritually through it and beat the cancer."

Hall says her young patient possesses "a beautiful, vibrant personality" and left a lasting impression. "I was invited into her life," she says, "but I was the one who was touched by having the opportunity to work with her."

Children's Miracle Network also supports research.

One beneficiary is Douglas Taylor, director of the Pediatric Stem Cell Transplant Program and an associate professor of pediatrics, who has won grants totaling $200,000 to investigate novel tools for identifying and analyzing cancer cells.

Yaya Garcia

Yaya Garcia

Yaya Garcia underwent several rounds of chemotherapy, and her supportive family and friends were at her side.

In a laboratory near UC Davis Cancer Center, Taylor and physicists Thomas Huser and James Chan are working to develop a quick and reliable diagnostic technique to identify cancer types. The technique utilizes Raman spectroscopy, a laser-based approach that allows scientists to identify cell and tissue type by characterizing biological molecules within a cell, or tissue samples. Raman spectroscopy overcomes many limitations of current technologies used to detect, identify, quantify and sort both normal and cancer cells. Taylor hopes his research eventually will help doctors diagnose cancer using less invasive methods, choose the most suitable drug for a particular cancer and quickly assess the effectiveness of treatment.

Because the key ingredients for a dynamic research program in pediatric cancer at UC Davis are well within reach, CMN also has granted $430,000 to support an endowed chair in pediatric cancer, which would fuel recruitment of a dedicated physician-researcher to lead pediatric cancer research at UC Davis.

"The all-encompassing care required to look after pediatric cancer patients and their families makes finding time for research very difficult for our pediatric oncology colleagues," said cancer center director Ralph deVere White. "That they are able to accomplish both speaks greatly to their dedication. It also speaks to the support that they have received from CMN, and to the organization's generous commitment toward the recruitment of a dedicated pediatric cancer researcher."

More about UC Davis cancer research and programs

Cover of Winter 2009 Synthesis © UC Regents

"Miraculous gifts"  also appears in Synthesis, the biannual magazine of UC Davis Cancer Center. The most recent issue explores cancer stem cells, personalized treatment for lung cancer, cancer treatment during pregnancy and an exciting new collaboration that will bolster the assault on breast cancer. 

Click here to read more.

To subscribe to Synthesis, click here.

The endowment is critically important for the future of the cancer center, which hopes to bring its pediatric program under the roof of an expanded cancer center facility within the next few years. UC Davis pediatric oncologists now see more than 50 newly diagnosed children each year, and their clinics log in excess of 2,500 patient visits.

For the Garcia family, visits to the cancer center are far less frequent these days. Now 13, she wears her newly regrown hair to her shoulders, and is an unabashed fan of pop music stars Rhianna and Beyonce.

"I'm glad to be back in school with everyone," she says. "My energy is good, but sometimes I still get tired. This year I want to play soccer again really bad. I'm going to try out for the team in February."

And although Yaya focuses on her future, she hasn't forgotten her experience as a cancer patient. She is helping organize a holiday bake sale and crafts sale to raise funds for the family of another child she met during her chemotherapy treatment, who recently passed away.

It's part of giving back, said Garcia, grateful for the return of the color to her daughter's cheeks. "The main thing is we have her here with us," she says. "You don't know until you face something like this that there are hundreds of people out there who are willing to lend a hand when you are in need."