By Perlita R. Dicochea
In contemporary American society there are many layers of silence wrapped around cancer, not only because the disease itself is frightening and we have trouble with issues of death and dying in our culture, but also because it is too frightening to contemplate the huge investment of money, power, and emotional capital in toxifying the environment and ourselves in the way we do now. Jim Tarter (2002), “Some Live More Down Stream Than Others.”
Last week I sat down with nine-year-old Andrew Penna, well into his second month of chemotheraphy for Hodgkins, and watched him offer his little sister help as she reached to open a donated can of soda. We sat in a spacious dining area of the Ronald McDonald House, where families of up to four are allowed to live rent-free while their child undergoes cancer treatment. That evening predominantly Latina/o families were treated to a special Mexican meal, chicken rolled tacos with all the fixings and Mexican rice, prepared by Friends of Scott.
Friends of Scott is a non-profit founded by Carmen Delgadillo, or Señora Carmen, as many Spanish-speaking parents refer to her. Delgadillo began the organization in the name of her son, Scott Delgadillo, who died of lymphoblastic leukemia three years ago. All of her volunteers that night were from Patrick Henry High School, the high school that Scott would have attended.
“Friends of Scott are wonderful,” RMH House Manager Nina Brown said. “They always bring a craft, they do spring cleaning, and they play with the kids. They have really helped our organization a lot,” Brown said. She continued, “The more often Friends of Scott can come to our house, the better.” The RMH is especially in need of food donations and volunteer meal preparations during the summer months, when help from other non-profit groups slows down.
Delgadillo and her volunteers have been paying visits to the RMH twice a month for the past year and are making plans to prepare meals up to three times a month. Other days of the week RMH residents must prepare their own meals.
“We have an increase in the number of Latinos that use the facilities in addition to those that live here. We need more funding and food,” Manny Alvarez, RMH resident manager, said.
While Friends of Scott serves all families with a child cancer patient, Delgadillo keeps in mind the low-income families of Mexican heritage she saw struggling at the hospital while her son was a patient. “When I was spending a lot of time at the hospital with my son, we noticed lots of Mexicans there. One day I saw a parent eating dry soup that was his dinner,” Delgadillo recalled.
“Seventy-five percent of the families that live (at the RMH) are Latina/o,” said Brown. This high percentage of bilingual Spanish/English and Spanish-speaking families at the RMH remains steady throughout the year, Brown said.
Brown explained that part of the reason for the high percentage of Latina/o families in residence is the prioritizing of need determined by the RMH. The RMH prioritizes residency for certain cancer types, families that reside farther from San Diego hospitals, and financial need. “We get a lot of families from Imperial County because San Diego is the closest children’s hospital to them. We also get a lot of Mexican families,” Brown furthered.
This figure correlates with the number of Latina/o or Hispanic child cancer patients at Children’s Hospital and Health Center of San Diego (CHHC) in particular. CHHC would not offer La Prensa its own data on the number of Latina/o children diagnosed with cancer at their oncology unit. Friends of Scott’s own sources provide a figure of 75%. Of these, 65% are both Latina/o and low-income, Delgadillo said.
Delgadillo was fortunate enough to receive donations to help with her son’s hospital bills and funerals costs. With the donation money left over, Delgadillo helped three other low-income Latina families properly bury their children lost to cancer. Delgadillo’s idea for a non-profit took off from there. “I believe this is what I was meant to do,” Delgadillo said.
The RMH: A Home Away From Home
For Andrew, his six-year-old sister and his parents the 12-room Ronald McDonald House is their home away from Ensenada.
“Estamos fascinada,” Andrew’s mother, Lidia Penna, said. “We are very pleased and grateful. In Mexico, we do not have this kind of help, certainly not for free,” she said.
“My kids were born here in San Diego but we no longer have a house here. So when we first found out that my son has Hodgkins we thought of camping out at the lake because that’s what we could afford,” Lidia Penna explained. Their doctor advised against this idea because of the exposure to germs that Andrew would be very sensitive to while undergoing chemotherapy.
Andrew has made use of the built-in hemotology rooms designed for children that need germ-free sanctuaries in order for their immune systems to heal.
Beyond cooking and laundry facilities, the RMH also provides the community of families, both residents and non-residents, with books and a DVD collection, a computer with internet access, and play rooms and art activities for the children. San Diego’s RMH is one of the few Ronald McDonald Houses with a Child Life Specialist, Nicole Hadley, on staff. Hadley provides counseling services for child patients of Children’s Hospital as well as siblings.
The Penna family heard about the RMH from one of Andrew’s teachers. “There is so much more magic here than its design…this is a dream come true,” Nick Penna said.
The experiences and compassion of other parents in the RMH has provided the Penna family with immediate support and information about therapies and other services. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Nick Penna said.
Recently, Mr. Penna was asked to speak at a fundraising event for the RMH in which he explained, “This is a place where families come to heal their hearts.” He furthered, “Truly wonderful people come here to help, to do what they can, be it make a dinner or clean or donate their time.”
The families at the RMH view local leaders such as Carmen Delgadillo as one of those truly wonderful people.
Andrew’s chemotherapy treatments were extended until September. He said he hopes to be back in school in time for next year.
“Muy valiente mi hijo (My child is very brave),” Mrs. Penna said.
State and Local Cancer Facts
Cancer is the leading cause of childhood death. A report by the California Cancer Registry (CCR) reads that cancer “kills more children from birth to age 14 in California than any other disease.”
Figures gathered by the CCR reveal that as of 1999 “Hispanics” had the highest annual incidence of cancer in children 4 years of age and younger.
The CCR also concludes that in California’s under age 20, leukemia, tumors of the central nervous system, and lymphomas account for about 60% of all cancers. Overall, childhood cancer rates are higher among males than females particularly for children ages 0-4.
Among males under 15, Hispanics have the one of the highest overall average annual cancer incidence (15.1 cases per 100,000 persons), trailing just behind non-Hispanic whites (15.5 cases per 100,000 persons).
From 1996-2000, Hispanic males and females residing in San Diego County ages 0-14 held the highest rate of cancer diagnoses (7.5 and 6.3 cases per 100,000 people, respectively). Friends of Scott and the Ronald McDonald House are non-profit organizations that rely on the donations, in money and volunteer time, of corporations, community groups, and individuals. For more information or to make a donation to Friends of Scott or the Ronald McDonald House, you may go to www.friendsofscott.org or www.sdmcdonalds.com.