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“I just knew:” El Paso mother recounts daughter’s cancer diagnosis and near-death illnesses

Rachell Rico
Mother Rachell Rico describes her daughter Aurora Valdez's battle with leukemia.

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. 

Each September, ABC-7 focuses on a family who has had a child battle cancer in order to shed light not just on the ordeal, also explore the options for both support and treatment in the Borderland.

At the beginning of August, Aurora Valdez started 5th grade at Harmony School of Science in Far East El Paso. She's in class, making friends and enjoying the start of the school year.

It's a far cry from where she was at this time last year -- recovering from a cancer diagnosis that ultimately left her susceptible to multiple illnesses. One of those almost cost the 10-year-old girl her life.

"All (of) 2022 was in and out of the hospital," said Rachell Rico, Aurora's mom.

It started in Dec. 2021, when Aurora began telling her mother that her legs hurt. It culminated on New Year's Eve, when they were shopping at the outlet mall.

"While we were walking, she couldn't stand the pain," Rico said. "Like, she was crying because of the pain. And that's when I was like, 'That's not normal. We have to go to the doctor.'"

Rico called the doctor Monday, set up an appointment for Tuesday, and then the lab ran blood tests on Wednesday. Friday, Rico got a call from the doctor's office. "(He) said, 'We have to see her today,' and I (thought), 'It's leukemia.' I just knew," Rico recounted as her eyes welled up with tears.

Aurora was diagnosed with B-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She spent a month in El Paso Children's Hospital, undergoing treatment until there were no detectable cancer cells in her bone marrow or blood.

But that wasn't the end of Aurora's recovery. It was the start of a year-long battle to live.

"She did get some adverse reactions to some of the medications. She got pancreatitis twice," said Rico. In November of 2022, she contracted cytomegalovirus, known as CMV, which is related to the viruses that cause chickenpox, herpes simplex and mononucleosis. For most people, it's manageable. For immunocompromised people like Aurora, it was dire.

"She did end up in PICU," Rico said. "Her lungs were failing on her."

She was intubated for three days.

Once they tried removing the breathing tube, Aurora suffered a coughing fit so severe she ruptured her lung tissue.

"I remember seeing the blood in the tube, and it was crazy," Rico recalled. "Nurses were coming in, and they were so quiet. They weren't really talking to us. We were processing it."

But she didn't realize how grave the situation was until the next morning, when Aurora's doctor visited Rico and her husband at Aurora's bedside.

"He was the one who told us, 'You know what, we're doing as much as we can, and this is the highest (oxygen level) that she can go. Anything higher would be more of a risk to her, so we need to think about all our options,'" Rico said as she recalled the doctor's words.

She paused, choking back tears. "She was weighing about 20 kgs (44.01 lbs), maybe less, and CPR is way too strenuous on the body. And we took that hard decision of signing a DNR, and placing all our hopes on God, and her, to come back."

Rico wiped her eyes and looked over at her daughter, who was fidgeting with her fingers as she sat by her mom's side. "And here she is," she finished, smiling.

Aurora woke up on Christmas Day 2022 after a month in a medically induced coma. Miraculously alive, but now dependent on a wheelchair. For most of the time she was in a coma, an IV had been leaking into the tissue in her leg, causing Aurora intense pain when she was awakened.

"Her foot hurt. She couldn't move it; we couldn't touch it. Any touch, she would scream," Rico said. "It was the worst part because we couldn't do anything for the pain. So since then, she hasn't been able to bear weight completely on it."

Aurora has had a few exciting mobility milestones this summer.

At the Candlelighters summer camp in Ruidoso, Aurora began walking towards her mom along the lakeside, so Rico grabbed her phone and recorded the moment.

When asked what prompted her to walk after not having done so for months, Aurora replied, "Because I didn't want to get my butt dirty!" But she later, more seriously, added, "I was nervous."

While she hasn't walked like that since, Aurora did swim -- with dolphins.

For her tenth birthday, which was Aug. 2, she and her parents, along with her older brother and younger sister, took a trip to Florida, courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

"It was really, really, really nice to be down there, especially because last year we were in and out of the hospital so much," Rico said, smiling widely, looking at Aurora. "She's really, really strong."

Candlelighters is holding the Walk of Hope on Saturday, Sept. 9 at Ascarate Park. It's in honor or in memory of those who are fighting or have lost their battle to cancer.

Sign up to walk or donate to Candlelighters here.

Article Topic Follows: Health

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Stephanie Valle

Stephanie Valle co-anchors ABC-7 at 5, 6 and 10 weeknights.


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