WHITTIER — Nicole Anguiano wasn't expected to last long--what with the diabetes, a suspected stroke and, most of all, an inoperable, fast-growing brain tumor.
The unrelenting advance of her affliction seemed particularly out of place in a 2-year-old with beautiful brown hair and sparkling, mischievous eyes.
Her prognosis in 1988: six months to live, maybe a little more, maybe less.
But she is still here, vital and seemingly normal. Nothing about her suggests decline and death. At her fourth birthday party Aug. 12 in Whittier's Central Park, she collected her Bart Simpson doll, Woody Woodpecker bag and Mickey Mouse backpack with every intention of enjoying the presents.
Her neurologist, Dr. Warren Cohen, won't classify Nicole's survival a medical miracle. That would be premature. But her rebound was unexpected.
"It's very, very unusual," he said. "It's not that she's unique. There are other children like her. For some reason, the growth of the tumor plateaus off. For some reason, it doesn't grow any more."
Meanwhile, the rest of Nicole grows just fine, and the outlook appears far different from November, 1988, when more than a dozen doctors at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles clustered around the family and Nicole. The physicians conducted test after test and asked questions: Had she fallen? Had she hit her head? Had she had any kind of traumatic experience?
The Anguianos had brought Nicole for treatment because her eyes turned to the right one morning and more or less stayed there. And she would start to gag when she saw other people eating.
After a series of doctors' referrals, Nicole's grandparents, mother and uncle piled into their 1979 Buick Regal for the journey downtown. "We had thought that the worst thing possible was that she would need glasses," recalled Anna-Maria Anguiano, Nicole's grandmother.
Instead, Nicole became one of less than 2,000 U.S. children younger than 15 who each year develop tumors in their nervous systems. In her case, the tumor was in the brain stem. Surgery was out of the question: Even if Nicole had left the operating table alive, a remote possibility, the brush of a surgical instrument against a nerve could disable her forever.
"You would literally have to kill her to remove it," Cohen said.
Radiation and chemotherapy treatments were options, but doctors said they would prolong Nicole's life by a matter of months at best--an extension accompanied by side effects such as hair loss, nausea, skin problems and nervous system and developmental disorders.
"We all sat down and decided that whatever time God gives her, we want it to be quality time," her grandmother says. "The doctors did not try to persuade us to change our minds."
So the Anguianos chose steroid therapy in a bid to reduce the tumor's swelling. And they waited.
Events unfolded just as forecast. Nicole declined. She lost her ability to walk, returned to diapers, gained weight because of the medication and grew listless.
In what promised to be a last wish come true in early February, 1989, Nicole--now in a wheelchair--was rolled into the dressing room of her hero, the wrestler Hulk Hogan, who gave her royal treatment.
Two days later, Nicole slipped into a coma.
Just three months had passed since the original diagnoses.
"I was mad," said Dolores Anguiano, Nicole's mother, remembering that doctors had predicted that Nicole would live longer.
"They had said six months, and I wanted my six months with her," said Anguiano, 24, who is enrolled in a nurse's training program.
When doctors could offer no hope, the family was willing to disconnect life support but elected to wait until Nicole's Uncle Carlos could rush back from military service in Germany. He wanted to say goodby to Nicole, but the Army "didn't want to give me emergency leave at first because a niece isn't immediate family," Carlos Anguiano Jr. said. "They didn't realize. . . . We're all we got."
Three generations of the tightly knit family live in a two-bedroom house on Hadley Street in Whittier. Nicole's Uncle David, now 17, stepped in to become almost a father to his niece when his sister's marriage plans fizzled.
While the family waited for Carlos to cut through the Army's red tape, Nicole lingered in a coma on life support for five days.
Around her hospital bed, the family read Nicole her favorite stories and touched her so she might know they were there. No response.
Then Nicole twitched. The family called a nurse.
The nurse told them it was nothing, probably an involuntary movement. Later, the nurse saw another twitch and wasn't so sure any more what it meant.
Amazingly, Nicole began to emerge from the coma. Doctors warned the family that she might be mentally impaired, she might not know them, she might quickly relapse into a coma and not come out again.
"Do you know who's talking to you," her grandmother asked Nicole.
The child mouthed, "Grandma." She couldn't speak the word because there was so much tubing in her mouth.