■ By Carolyn Straub / Contributed
Some kids dream of becoming a TV star, a sports hero or an astronaut. Max Salazar pictured himself serving in the U.S. Navy, or working for Lockheed Space Systems, like his grandfather does. But at age 11, his wishes took a backseat when he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)—an aggressive blood and bone marrow cancer. The onset can mimic the flu, so doctors missed Max’s first symptoms. His severe headaches continued; in February 2013, he was admitted to Loma Linda’s Pediatric ICU in critical condition. Inflamed gums and aching leg bones helped physicians connect the dots. Chemo treatments began.
“This came at a particularly stressful time for me,” said his grandmother, Linda Salazar Watson, of Hemet. “Max pretty much lived with us from six weeks old. Both of his parents worked and my husband and I were happy to have him in our life. But my husband died, and seven months later, Max was diagnosed. I lost my home a month after that and moved in with my sister, Lana Andre, in Hemet. My days and some nights were spent at the hospital with Max.”
In April, he was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). A stroke left Max with a weakened left side. Malignant tumors called chloromas grew in his forehead, necessitating brain surgery.
Massive chemo doses completely killed Max’s immune system and damaged his heart. Then radiation began—20 treatments in all, which were administered at St Joseph’s Hospital across the street from CHOC. Because he is a minor, a family member needed to accompany him. Often Grandma Linda left Hemet in pre-dawn hours to attend those treatments. Not surprisingly, stress also seized this normally quiet boy. One day he reached his limit, screaming at the staff and his family to get out—to just leave him alone. “I cried all the way home,” said his grandmother.
Make-a-Wish Foundation staffers interviewed the patients in CHOC’s pediatric ward. They listened to the dreams of this frail, bedridden boy.
A year later, in March 2014, Max’s system improved enough to accept a bone marrow transplant. His mom, the best donor match, lay beside her son while her blood was drawn. White cells were separated for processing; the remainder was returned to her body. Max received her lifesaving cells.
“So many times we thought we might lose Max,” recalls his Aunt Lana. “We just asked people to pray without ceasing. And we all did!”
Two more months passed before he went home, fitted with a feeding tube for nutrients and medication. Going out in public wasn’t possible; his immune system needed to regenerate. Thanks to the Internet, Max began catching up on school work.
Since his pituitary and thyroid glands were affected by the chemo, Max is much smaller than his peers. Growth hormone may help him recover some height. He enrolled in Norco’s Fitbody Boot Camp and has already studied and passed 77 written exams.
Last April, along with his family, Max completed his first Ronald McDonald 5K Walk. They wore orange “Team Max” shirts, emblazoned with “Every day he fights.”
Recently Make-A-Wish staffers contacted Max again, this time asking, “What wish would you like fulfilled?” He chose a trip to the Super Bowl. His days in Houston were jam-packed. While they cheered on the New England team from $1,100 loge seats, he spotted lots of famous people, most notably Mark Wahlberg and his family. “They left at halftime,” he said. “Too bad.” He received a signed Tom Brady jersey and an official NFL football, autographed by the players.
On another day he met with Sandra Lee, one of his favorite Food Network stars. (He’s learned to cook while recuperating in front of the TV!) Later he was escorted to the Houston Space Center.
“It was so cool, Grammy,” he reported to Linda. “I got a bunch of patches for my camo, and I tried on an astronaut suit. We rode in taxis everywhere. But they got us up way too early and we were out late. It was exhausting.” He grinned. “On the plane coming home, the pilot invited me into the cockpit. I started the engines and I made the announcements!” Dark circles under his eyes couldn’t mask the delight Make-A-Wish delivered.
Doctors say if this remission lasts seven more years, they’ll call it a cure. Max Salazar turned 15 this month.