Tulsa toddler with cancer to undergo major surgery
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2013
2/23/13 at 8:12 AM
Little Jj Garza toddles around with a smile and giggles, chasing his new dog to get a wet kiss.
The 19-month-old pulls up his shirt to show off a port inserted in his chest for intravenous medications and scars from several medical procedures.
He's a little small for his age, bald after seven rounds of chemotherapy, and happy to show off his dance moves.
In September, a cancerous tumor - a neuroblastoma - was found wrapped around his midsection, with branches going into and attacking different organs.
The weight of it was probably the reason he wasn't walking until after it shrunk slightly with chemo treatments.
It's a cancer typically diagnosed in children younger than 5 with about 700 new cases a year.
His parents have never met another child or family with neuroblastoma and are frustrated by the lack of research and information.
In early March, Jj will undergo a 15- to 20-hour surgery to remove much of the tumor, which will also mean losing his spleen, a kidney and part of his large intestine.
He may not survive the operation.
It's a surgery with a lot of unknowns and a risk of infection and loss of blood.
"What makes this easier is his spirit," said his mother, Heather Garza. "He is such a strong kid. No one knows why anyone is put here - what our purpose is. Maybe Jj is here to let people know about childhood cancer. We just don't know yet."
Medical uncertainties: Heather and John Garza have been submerged in the culture and fog of childhood cancer.
Heather Garza had to quit her job to become a full-time caregiver.
John Garza, who works in construction, had to turn down projects away from home and is now a struggling, self-employed handyman and builder.
"I'm too scared to go to work sometimes," he said. "I'll be in the truck ready to pull out for work, then I turn it off and come back in. What if Jj is not here when I get back? What if I'm not spending enough time with him now? What if Heather needs me? I just can't do it some days."
They speak about Jj's condition with detachment, using clinical and data-like terms. It keeps them sane.
"We don't have a choice in this," Heather Garza said. "What else is there to do but remain calm?"
They have their moments, though, waiting to cry when they are alone together at night.
"Depression is big, but we don't let him see it," Heather Garza said. "He knows when we're upset, then he gets upset. So we keep it from him. Kids sense those things. If we need to break down, we do it away from him. We go outside. We leave the room."
Neuroblastoma patients have a 30 percent chance of survival.
Those who survive have a 70 percent chance of a recurrence, plus a lifetime of side effects.
"If Jj makes it through surgery, he will be on antibiotics until at least 18 and have no immune system," Heather Garza said. "He'll never play sports. No roughhousing, and we're not sure about going to school. We haven't thought that far yet."
Financial woes: Already on the edge of working class, they very likely will plunge into bankruptcy.
Their insurance is the state Medicaid program, SoonerCare, and bills are already piling up into the thousands.
"My dad sat us down and explained we'll probably have to file for bankruptcy," John Garza said.
They live in a north Tulsa home, purchased as a fixer-upper because John Garza is trained in home building. But repairs and renovations are on hold because of cost and time.
Their tidy home is decorated with photos of Jj, taken daily. His favorite toys of trucks, cars and coloring books are well-used in a playroom.
They haven't spent as much time at home as they'd like, though, with hospitalizations and doctor visits becoming routine.
The stays at Saint Francis Children's Hospital are financially draining, with estimates of about $100 a day for food and gas, they say.
John Garza's father started leaving donation cans around Owasso businesses to collect money for Jj. Heather Garza's mother in Canada sold homemade bracelets and sent the money.
The Wrestling for a Cause group has taken up Jj's fight by putting on a benefit Sunday at the Owasso Sertoma Center.
It's appropriate because wrestling is something Jj also loves to do with his father, like any typical boy.
"There are so many what-ifs; it'll drive you crazy," Heather Garza said. "But these kids who have cancer are resilient. They are strong and don't give up easy. Jj doesn't know any different."
Original Print Headline: One tough kid
Wrestling for a Cause
What: Proceeds go to the Garzas for Jj's medical bills
When: Doors open at 1 p.m. Bell time is 2 p.m.
Where: Owasso Sertoma Center, 405 W. Second St.
Tickets: $5 at Barbara's Family Barbering, 608 N. Atlanta; John's Ram Shop, 1210 E. 86th St. North; and Daylight Donuts, 8700 N. 117th East Ave.
Jj Garza, 19 months, enjoys waving and meeting neighbors outside his north Tulsa home, where he is awaiting surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that will also take his spleen, a kidney and part of his large intestine. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World
Heather and John Garza have been in a fight for the life of their son, 19-month-old Jj, who has a cancerous tumor wrapped around his midsection. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World
Jj Garza, 19 months, hasn't gotten to spend as much time at home as his family would like since his cancer diagnosis. Hospitalizations and doctor visits have become routine, and an upcoming surgery will continue the trend. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World