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HIGH LIFE : 'He's My Hero' : Youth's Leukemia Fight Stirs Admiration of Family, Friends

June 09, 1989|LYNDA KIM | Lynda Kim is a senior at Cypress High School, where she is the editor of the school newspaper, Centurion Scroll. She will also be her school's graduation speaker in ceremonies on June 19. Lynda will attend UCLA in the fall, majoring in communications

"I like collecting business cards, and I write a lot of letters to my friends.

"I was in band for seven years; I play the trumpet and I'm very damn good too.

"My favorite subjects are science and computers.

"My favorite celebrity is Tom Hanks because everybody else, when they get famous, they change, but Tom Hanks is still the same. It's like that song by Billy Joel which goes, 'Don't go changing to try to please me.'

"Before, I used to say that nothing scares me, but now death scares me. The unknown scares me."

Hendryck Mejia's story is one of courage. It is a story of a young man fighting for his life, battling leukemia for the past six years. Despite all his medical setbacks, this 18-year-old Buena Park High School senior managed to meet all of his graduation requirements. He received his high school diploma May 11 at a special ceremony in the auditorium at UCI Medical Center.

Hospital and school officials arranged the special ceremony because Mejia was to undergo an intense round of chemotherapy the next day and was not expected to be fully recovered by June 15, the school's official graduation date.

About 150 Buena Park students, family, friends and relatives were present at the 20-minute ceremony to watch the determined senior walk down the aisle--as the lone graduate--in the traditional cap and gown to receive his diploma.

"This is just the beginning," Mejia shouted to well-wishers, later adding, "I'm really proud to have graduated. By all the people who came to my graduation, you can see all the friends I have."

In order to keep up with his classmates while moving in and out of the hospital, Mejia learned to work. He received his assignments in advance from each and every teacher. "I worked hard to get all my assignments done the way I like it," he said. "I guess I'm a perfectionist."

At the ceremony, Principal George Giokaris praised Mejia, saying, "You've taught us to nurture friendships and to make sure each interaction is meaningful."

Jennifer Isensee, who has been Mejia's special-education teacher for all of her three years at Buena Park High, said his positive attitude was reflected in the quality of his work.

"His works are always completed at a much higher level than everyone else's in the class," she said. "I'm really proud of Hendryck. The fact that he takes his assignments home to finish shows a great deal of motivation.

"He has the drive and determination to carry him through anything he wants to do. Once he puts his mind to do something, he always accomplishes it, and I know he'll continue doing that."

Mejia said he wants to become a doctor, carrying on his fight against the disease that may claim his life.

"I want to be an oncologist, just like my doctor, Dr. Jacob Katz," he said. "I want to put a stop to leukemia once and for all."

Hospital officials presented Mejia with a white lab coat and an honorary degree in medicine at his graduation.

Mejia's leukemia was first diagnosed when he was 12.

"It was during the summer," he recalled. "I was at my dad's (Spanish music) store taking a nap one day, and I woke up with a high fever. The next day, the same thing happened, so my mom decided to take me to the hospital. The doctor said I had a little fever and to take it easy.

"I then went to a second doctor. After some blood tests, she said I either had an ulcer or leukemia. The day after that, I came to UCI Medical Center for further tests. Ever since then, I've been coming to this hospital. In fact, I've been coming here so much that I know everybody in this whole hospital, and everyone knows me. They're all very nice, and that makes things easier.

"After I started coming to the hospital on a regular basis, I felt little lumps in my neck, so we came in and the doctors did another bone marrow test. After that, they said that they wanted to talk to my parents alone. That's when they told them I had ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia)."

His disease is a cancer of the blood-forming tissue. Those suffering from it have bone marrow that produces immature white blood cells.

"I guess the hardest thing (about fighting leukemia)," Mejia said, "is going through chemotherapy because it knocks you down more than leukemia itself.

"Overall, I'd say that my doctor and I have been doing fairly well, except for when I have relapses. I tell my doctor, 'You keep giving me the right stuff, and I'll keep on taking it.' "

Mejia's illness has had a tremendous effect on his family. His 13-year-old sister Michelle, who is in the eighth grade at Buena Park Junior High School, said, "I was 7 when I found out he had leukemia. I remember that I was scared, and I cried a lot."

Nellie, Mejia's mother, remembered the first time she learned of her son's illness. "Our first reaction was thinking that he was going to die," she said. "We were scared. We lived with that fear all the time. But look where we are now. He's made it for six years!

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