For the first time in two years, Jazmin Santiago's life is starting to look normal. When she's not busy with virtual classes at St. Theresa School in Little Rock, the 12-year-old enjoys drawing anything from people to flowers and playing with her sisters, 7-year-old Jessica and 3-year-old Jerrica. She will start seventh grade in person in August.
"I like to go play with my sisters. We play Mario Kart and Just Dance 2020," Jazmin said, the two older sisters pointing to each other to say who has the best dance moves.
"I love them very much," Jazmin said with a quiet conviction.
While the world was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jazmin was already in the middle of a battle for her life. On Aug. 6, 2019, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).
After countless rounds of chemotherapy, prayer, support from her school and a lifesaving bone marrow donation from her sister, Jazmin is in remission.
"My dad and I prayed to God so that I can be cured and go back and be normal," she said.
Yetica del Ángel said her daughter began complaining of leg and back pain in the summer of 2019, but because of her active lifestyle, between gymnastics and playing, she did not think it was anything more than growing pains. After falling off a water slide at a family party, Jazmin had some large bruises, bumps and scrapes. When the headaches started, they reduced screen time, but the pain got progressively worse.
"I saw on my feet that I had like red dots ... then like a few days later I got very sick. I felt like I was about to throw up," Jazmin said. "And I think I started to get headaches a little bit. And so we went to the doctor."
At the clinic Jazmin’s mother was alarmed when the doctor said, “You take your girl, drive her to the emergency room, do not stop for anything, not for food, not for your house," del Ángel said. "When she entered the (hospital) room, all the doctors (were) coming with the IVs and taking the blood. So maybe two hours, or less than two hours, 10 doctors coming inside the room. And the doctor tells me the first time, talking about cancer, leukemia."
The family's daily life changed instantly. Instead of starting fifth grade, Jazmin, then 10, was in the hospital for months enduring chemotherapy to control the infection, covered in an Our Lady of Guadalupe blanket.
"I was shocked. I was like, 'Oh no, I don't want to have cancer.' I was scared. And I didn't want to have it," Jazmin said.
St. Theresa principal Kristy Dunn has known the Santiago family for years. Her daughter Bonnie has been in the same class and friends with Jazmin since pre-K.
"It’s very personal for me, probably more personal if it was a child in another class since my daughter is in her class. And since we’ve had leukemia in our family, it just touched my heart immediately when her mom said she was diagnosed,” Dunn said. “I held it together when Jazmin's mom told me the diagnosis, but I cried when she left because I was very scared for Jazmin. I told God, ‘No.’”
In 2018, Dunn lost her cousin Conner Kordsmeier, 19, of Benton, to Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), three days after he was diagnosed. Her aunt, Karen Howe, also died of AML in 2011.
“Connor’s life taught me to enjoy life and be joyful in life. And all of that infused with the love of Christ, he didn’t worry. He had fun, and I just try to carry that spirit with me because I tend to be in my head and anxious, and he never demonstrated that,” Dunn said. “I prayed for Connor's intercession in Jazmin's healing journey, as well as Blessed Stanley Rother.”
With prayer came action and an overwhelming need for the school community to take care of one of their own.
In September 2019, the family learned Jazmin needed a bone marrow transplant. As part of the school’s annual Autumnfest, a “Be a Hero - Be a Match” bone marrow drive was held to raise the chances of a match for Jazmin or for others in need. Her classmates wore capes, running around the festival encouraging everyone to get on the bone marrow registry with a simple cheek swab. The drive added 32 people to the registry.
“We did a collection at a school Mass and raised over $1,000 to give to the family. Her class all made spirit shirts with some of those hashtags, ‘Be the Match,’ ‘Jazmin Strong,’” Dunn said, along with video chats from classmates, visits at the hospital when able and meal packages from fellow parents. “It was just so natural because this community of St. Theresa, the Lord has placed it on everyone’s heart to look out for the ‘least of these.’ During Jazmin's journey, there was a time where she was the ‘least of these’ and she needed that support.”
In November 2019, the family was told Jessica was a match for her older sister.
“I was happy that they found she was my donor and that I would be grateful for her for donating her bone marrow to me so I can go to school and do everything and go back to normal,” Jazmin said.
In late January 2020, Jazmin and her parents, Yetica del Ángel and José Santiago, left for Nashville for treatment at TriStar Centennial Medical Center, the best-recommended hospital for the transplant, staying about four months between the hospital and Ronald McDonald House. To keep close to the school, Yetica’s parents and other relatives watched their other daughters.
In the middle of treatments, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It did not stop or delay Jazmin’s care, but the family had to be quarantined in the hospital for two weeks after being exposed to the virus. None of them tested positive. Jessica and Jerrica joined them in Nashville after the schools shut down in March.
“It was difficult. With Jazmin sick with leukemia and the pandemic, I was nervous the whole time,” del Ángel said. “... Only watching my daughter in need, I needed to be strong for her and my other kids.”
Jazmin received the transplant Feb. 10, 2020, and the family was able to return to Arkansas by June 1. With a little spunk in her voice, Jessica said she was happy to donate to her sister.
“(What) I like most about Jazmin is when she draws and how she looks and she plays with us,” Jessica said, adding she didn’t feel anything during her surgery to donate her bone marrow.
“They put me in a bed. I felt nothing, but they turned me over to my back, and they took my blood out, or my bone marrow ... It feels good helping my sister,” she said.
This February, Jazmin was told she was officially in remission.
“It felt good,” Jazmin said, with an eye toward starting school full-time, in-person in August.
“Meeting my friends, learning new things and see how, like, being in the seventh grade is.”
For her mother, it has been a journey of strength, relying on the kindness of her family and school community.
“Many people help me; I’m in love with the school,” del Ángel said. “A lot of people called me, a lot of people prayed for my girl.”
On May 5, during a school celebration for Cinco de Mayo, Jazmin came to play with her friends for the first time.
“I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it. I think my daughter Bonnie is very sweet and kind, she prays for Jazmin, and asks about Jazmin, but to see them side by side, to have fun at an outdoor day,” Dunn said she was grateful to God. “... Jazmin is quiet, mannerly, one of those ‘ideal’ students in the classroom. She doesn’t make trouble. I think that served her well in some of the low times of her illness. She was really sick after chemo, when she was really tired she could draw on her inner strength and rest for renewal. Both her and her family have a great faith.”
During the worst of the treatment, Jazmin’s prayers were centered on asking God for a cure. Now, she thanks God for her life.
“I would say thank you that I was cured and that I can finally now go to school and do everything. And that I can be a better person,” she said.
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