Hector Sandoval stopped to look over his polished hair in the mirror. He smoothed his 5-year-old hands over his hair.
“Mom, I look good!” he says as he looked up at her with a wink.
“Even when you’re not feeling well, you’re still silly,” says Paola Sandoval, Hector’s mom. She felt his warm forehead with the back of her hand. “Are you sure you want to go?”
“Mom, I can’t miss, again,” pleads Hector.
Paola hesitantly agreed.
“This makes three weeks,” Paola thought to herself as she worried over Hector’s persistent fever. Even after 10 days of antibiotics, the fever hadn’t subsided, and oddly her three older children hadn’t been sick — something felt wrong. Despite multiple visits to the pediatrician, Hector’s fever was unexplained.
At football practice, Hector was miserable which was strange for him, because he loves the sport. Hector grew up watching his two older brother’s play and watched games with his family.
Hector is a die-hard Los Angeles Rams fan, his favorite player is Rams running back Todd Gurley (#30), and his family had even purchased season tickets to support the team.
At night, Hector started sweating a lot — his mom thought it was a side effect of the fever. Hector also developed a cough. Paola’s uneasiness grew. They made another trip to the pediatrician where an X-ray of his chest was taken to rule out pneumonia.
After a few days, Paola received a call from Hector’s pediatrician. They confirmed her worries —a mass was found in Hector’s chest X-ray. They recommended Hector be taken to the emergency department at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach to meet Ramesh Patel, M.D., hematologist/oncologist, Jonathan Jaques Children’s Cancer Center. Additional, imaging found a 6-inch mass wrapped around Hector’s respiratory system.
After more testing, Hector’s diagnosis was confirmed — Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer that starts in the cells of the lymph node glands, which are part of the body’s immune system.
Hector underwent three days of intensive chemotherapy and was scheduled for regular 21-day cycles of treatment. Hector was able to go home in between treatments. He experienced many of the common side effects of chemotherapy, but the toughest was hair loss.
“Many chemotherapy drugs are designed to effectively kill rapidly dividing cells,” says Dr. Patel. “Before chemotherapy, hair follicles divide every 23 to 72 hours.”
Hector’s hair began to fall out after his second chemotherapy session.
“Dad, people will make fun of me,” an inconsolable Hector said.
Hector, Sr., put on a brave face. Hair loss is often hard for the entire family to cope with. Hector, Sr. held his son and reminded him that he had his family’s support and love.
That week, his entire family cut their hair in solidarity with Hector. His brothers, grandma and his mom all cut their hair short — his dad shaved his head bald. Their love empowered Hector.
Another source of motivation for Hector was Gurley. Hector tied his hero to his cancer journey, including everything from imaging to treatment.
Hector’s treatment ran through the holidays. Cancer kept him from Kindergarten, playing football and his Rams games — his family had given away their season tickets, vowing to wait for Hector to go next year.
Then Hector, Sr., had a call with Rams member services consultant, Johnny Mendez, Jr., regarding their season tickets. Hector’s cancer journey and love for Gurley came up in their conversation. The Rams wanted to show Hector they were supporting him too, after all, they were “Ramily.” A special visit was scheduled at Hector’s home that included a surprise.
On Dec. 19, 2017, just as Hector finished chemotherapy, Gurley visited a bald Hector and his family at their home in Long Beach and surprised him with a trip for two to Super Bowl LII.
Hector and his dad made the trip to the Super Bowl together. An overall incredible experience, it was crowned with a serendipitous encounter with Gurley while boarding the airplane to head home.
They caught up, exchanged well wishes, then Gurley turned to say, “Your hair is looking good, Hector.”
Hector grinned as he smoothed his 6-year-old hands over the little fuzz that had begun to grow back.