By JULIE JAG
SANTA CRUZ — Of all the trips the Rivas family has made between Santa Cruz and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford over the past year, the one they made recently ranked among the cheeriest.
In celebration of the season of giving and the one-year anniversary of the last day in the hospital for their oldest son, Erick — who was diagnosed with spinal cancer — the family made the familiar trip just to deliver a carload of presents to the young patients there.
The presents weren’t extravagant. With doctors bills and a mortgage to pay and Veronica out of work for a year caring for Erick, 12, the two Rivas children’s own presents came mostly from the charity of the Watsonville-based Jacob’s Heart Foundation. But if the family has learned anything over the trying past year, it’s that even the littlest acts of kindness can make a measurable difference.
“Give by heart. If you feel it, that’s the thing,” Veronica said. “It isn’t the price of the stuff, it’s the feeling.”
These days, the Rivases are doing whatever they can in what they describe as a futile effort to replay the Santa Cruz community for the help they have received since discovering last December that Erick had stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The diagnosis of that form of cancer, which is treatable by chemotherapy and radiation, came as both a blow and a relief. Erick had been sick and in pain for months before his primary doctor, after several misdiagnoses, finally recommended the family visit a specialist at Stanford. Even the specialists weren’t sure at first if the cancer, which had obliterated his L4 vertebrae and begun to cake on his pelvic wall, would be terminal or treatable.
They also warned Erick that he would never be an athlete because of the damage to his spinal cord and that he might have to wear a corset to support his back for the rest of his life. The blow was hard to take for a boy whose parents are strong believers in being active and whose father helped co-found and still coaches for FC Revolution, a soccer club for underprivileged youth.
“I was always positive,” Erick said. “When they told me, I cried for like three minutes. Then I knew it was gong to be a battle.”
The treatments worked even better than the Rivases could have hoped.
“It’s kind of a miracle for him,” said Belseth Rivas, Erick’s father. “He started getting chemo and radiation and it was like a switch flipped. … With chemo and radiation, everything was getting smaller and smaller right away.”
Erick left the hospital on Dec. 22, 2012, after a 15-day stay. In May, he received his last dose of chemo and radiation and he can declare himself in remission if the cancer does not return within the next five months. He also hasn’t needed the corset or any physical therapy, and in late August, doctors told Erick he could start playing sports again.
Erick’s reversal of fortune seems to have been sudden, but Veronica and Belseth said coping with his illness and its ripple effects has been a daily struggle. They credit the kindness of friends and strangers for getting them through it.
“We talk to him about it all the time,” Veronica said. “One year ago he was in the hospital, but now he’s healthy and we’re all together and we’re closer as a family. We talk about that and how there are a lot of people who love him a lot.”
Nonprofit organizations such as Jacob’s Heart and Human Connexus Foundation helped with bills when Belseth, a construction worker, and Veronica, a house cleaner, missed out on their daily wages to care for Erick. After his release, Erick was required to stay out of school to avoid infection of the IV for his radiation treatments and was at risk of having to repeat sixth grade. Upon hearing that, one of his teachers volunteered to tutor him three days a week and another offered to help him with his homework, ensuring he would join the seventh-grade class this fall.
Students at Good Shepherd school raised more than $10,000 for the family. Others brought food or gifts or simply support. Many had been affected by Belselth’s volunteer work through FC Revolution.
“Even before I enrolled myself in soccer, I was thinking always, ‘How can I help?’ I never expected to need help,” Belseth said.
But the score isn’t even in the Rivases’ eyes. They plan to keep paying it forward, and teaching Erick and 3-year-old Xavier to do the same.
“I tell him, enjoy every single moment of your life,” Veronica said. “When he was in the hospital, we couldn’t help him because he was in a lot of pain. It’s hard to say it will be alright, because you don’t know.
“We told him you need to pray by heart, and the important thing is, when people need you, you be there.”
Julie Jag is the Sentinel sports editor. Follow her on Twitter and Tout @julie_jag.
Purpose: To assist people who come from an underprivileged background and/or who are currently in a situation that has left them financially disadvantaged
Contact: 1177 Branham Lane No. 325, San Jose, CA 95118 or email [email protected]
On the Net: www.humanconnexus.org
Jacob’s Heart Children’s Cancer Support Services
Purpose: Improving the quality of life for children with cancer
Contact: 2007 Freedom Blvd., Freedom, CA 95019 or call 831-724-9100
On the Net: pixelwebclient.com/jacobsheart2
FC Revolution Soccer Club
Purpose: Nonprofit year-round premier soccer club primarily founded to serve low income families
Contact: 332 Columbia St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 or email [email protected]
On the Net: www.sccfcrevolution.org