ORLANDO, Fla. — Inside his living room in east Orange County, 8-year-old Alan Vasquez plays with Legos, building a city that includes plastic cars and a replica of Arkham Asylum, the fictional psychiatric hospital in Batman comic books.
Outside, boys run around and chase each other with toy guns. Alan can hear them set up camp in his front yard, but he’s too tired to play with them.
Alan has an aggressive form of brain cancer. While he has improved since his treatment began earlier this year, he has a long road ahead of him.
Fortunately for him, he does not walk this road alone.
Alan’s neighbors have rallied to his cause — from arranging meals for the overwhelmed family to raising money for Alan’s treatment in Mexico.
“He’s a child. It could be anybody’s child,” said Elena Colon, a family friend who works at the U.S. Post Office’s Alafaya Branch with Alan’s father and organized a community fundraiser for Alan.
Alan’s family, which includes mother Midy, father Ricardo and two brothers, have lived in east Orange County — first in Avalon Park and now Stoneybrook — since 2004.
A wiry second grader, Alan’s favorite superhero is Batman, and he likes math and sports — including baseball and football. He was playing league flag football in February when the coach’s wife noticed Alan was limping on his left leg and slurring his words.
Thinking it was a sports injury, Midy Vasquez took Alan to an orthopedic doctor who performed X-rays. Before Alan could be taken to a specialist, his symptoms worsened.
Two days later at Stone Lakes Elementary School, Alan went to the front office complaining that his head and entire left side hurt.
“On the way to the hospital I could see his left lip droopy,” recalled Midy Vasquez, a human resources administrator. “I thought he was having a stroke.”
Vasquez said Nemours Children’s Hospital staff discovered Alan had a tumor in his spinal cord. He was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an aggressive form of cancer at the base of the brain. DIPG has no known cure and an almost impossible survival rate. Only 10 percent of children with DIPG survive for two years following their diagnosis, and less than 1 percent survive for five years, according to the Michael Mosier Defeat DIPG Foundation.
Alan was transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, where he was fitted for a radiation mask while his mother explored more holistic treatments.
Dr. Zhi Liang Huo in Winter Park began treating Alan’s double vision and leg numbness with acupuncture and herbal powder. Midy said he began to improve after two weeks.
But he still needed chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor in his spinal cord.
Midy began researching an alternative procedure and discovered an intra-arterial chemotherapy treatment, which goes through a major artery to the brain to infuse drugs.
The catch: The procedure is performed in Monterrey, Mexico. The family’s health insurance does not cover treatment outside of the country. So Midy and Ricardo decided to sell their home and move into a rental property to help offset the cost.
Over three weeks in March, Alan had two procedures in Mexico, which cost $15,000. An MRI showed his tumor had shrunk by 50 percent, and the family returned home to Orlando with some hope.
They also found an army of support. The communities of Avalon Park and Stoneybrook banded together to deliver meals to the family’s doorstep.
“I’m not sure how they did it, but everybody signed up and helped,” Vasquez said. Dinners ranging from lasagna to mac and cheese and even dessert and fruit were provided. A woman who had recently moved from the community wanted to be part of the giving, so she ordered a meal from Pizza Hut.
Donations for Alan also began pouring in. Midy’s co-workers gave their vacation hours for her to spend more time with Alan. Caribe Blu, a local Cuban restaurant, hosted a fundraising event. Petland’s corporate office donated a Yorkiepoo puppy for Alan, which he endearingly named Junior.
“He likes playing with his ball,” Alan said.
The family was given tickets to an Orlando Magic game, where Alan was put on the Jumbotron and player Bismack Biyombo gave him his sneakers.
And when Alan finally returned to school in April, he was greeted by the marquee spelling out “Welcome Back Alan.” His classmates made a bridge with their arms so he could walk under as they cheered.
He was back in Mexico last week with his father for ongoing follow-up treatment. A family member has set up a GoFundMe account, which has raised almost $18,000 to help offset ongoing costs. The family is thankful for all the support.
Ricardo’s longtime co-worker, Colon, organized a fundraiser in Avalon Park that was attended by dozens of people.
“I was so amazed and excited,” Colon said. “At the end of the night, I gave the bucket to Ricardo, and he started crying. I started crying. I was so happy. I wanted all this to work out.”
Colon’s fundraiser for Alan raised $7,386.
“I’ve seen (Alan) since he was little. I need to do something more than donate something little,” Colon said. “I’m so grateful. He’s an amazing little boy.”
Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/