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SUMMER CAMP CAMPAIGN

A `cancer-free' diagnosis, new friends in his future

July 24, 2006|Melissa Pamer | Times Staff Writer

When Manny Fernandez was 4, he began experiencing headaches, vomiting, fevers and dehydration so often that his mother, Elizabeth Fernandez, was regularly taking him to the emergency room. It took two years, and several misdiagnoses, before it became clear what was making Manny so sick.

Along the way, one doctor told Manny's mother that the boy might be a hypochondriac. She walked out of the hospital with her son so fast, she left his clothes there.

Eventually, Manny started to lose his coordination and couldn't keep any food down. At age 6, he weighed just 35 pounds.

One night in January 2003, Fernandez drove her son from the family's Sylmar home to Children's Hospital in Hollywood.

"He said his bones were hurting as if a truck were running over him," Fernandez recalls. Manny, now 10, says he still remembers that feeling.

The doctors at Children's gave Manny a CT scan. Fernandez, utterly exhausted, fell asleep stretched out next to her son's hospital bed.

"When I woke up, there were like six doctors there," says Fernandez. "They told me there was a tumor. I was like, 'OK, what do we do?' They were putting papers in front of me, saying, 'You have to sign this.' "

Within days, surgeons removed a malignant, golf-ball-size tumor from Manny's brain. Since then, the Fernandezes have had many ups and downs. Manny's cancer returned after the initial surgery. He went through months of chemotherapy and had a bone marrow transplant that involved living for weeks in a sterile bubble room.

"We almost lost him twice," Fernandez says. "His heart stopped; he had no pulse. He was literally purple."

But Manny is now in remission and will be considered officially cancer-free in October. He's had complications as a result of the chemotherapy and radiation -- including seizures and a loss of growth hormone that keeps him small for his age.

Throughout his ordeal, though, Manny has had the constant support of his parents and four siblings. And he has had yearly trips to Camp Ronald McDonald -- where children with cancer and their siblings can explore the wilderness.

Fernandez was initially hesitant to send Manny to camp, not trusting that doctors there would know what to do if a problem occurred. But the staff at Children's encouraged her to let him attend. She relented, and all but Manny's youngest sister have gone to camp with him.

"When Manny gets to go to camp, that's the best time for him. He's just free out there," Fernandez says.

Manny left for his fourth visit to camp on Friday. He loves archery, but most important, he says, "I get new friends."

About 10,000 underprivileged children will go to camp this summer, thanks to $1.6 million raised last year.

The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $1.1 million in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make donations by credit card, go to latimes.com/summercamp.

To send checks, use the attached coupon. Do not send cash.

Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $50 or more will be acknowledged in The Times.

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