CONVERSE — Jaelynn Lopez is a fighter. She has to be.
For 2 1/2 years, the 18-year-old Veterans Memorial High School student has been battling cancer and an army of life-threatening complications.
It started near the end of her sophomore year at the Judson Independent School District campus, when she experienced splitting headaches. Then, she tumbled down a flight of stairs while attending classes. When she continued declining, her mother, Erika Garza, sought answers.
On May 24, 2017, doctors delivered the diagnosis no one ever wants to hear: Lopez had leukemia.
What followed were countless hospital visits, chemotherapy sessions and hundreds of transfusions of blood and platelets.
“It seemed like I’d be home for a week, and then back in the hospital,” Lopez said. “But, I’m a fighter.”
Others take strength from the teen’s relentless attitude, galvanizing both educators and fellow students alike.
“Jaelynn is incredibly strong,” said ex-Patriot Principal Josephine Juarez, now the top administrator at Judson Early College Academy. She still communicates with the family, and finds them inspiring.
Intensive chemo damaged Lopez’s liver so badly an organ transplant is now needed. But before then, the Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged a vacation for her family at Disney World last July. It was magical, she said. Things were looking up.
However, just weeks after returning, Lopez was back at the hospital in critical condition with a cryptococcal fungus ravaging her body and causing massive internal bleeding. Physicians said viewing exotic birds during the trip could’ve triggered the infection, which flourished in her weakened state. She underwent serious operations to remove an infection on her head, and another to extract infected nodes growing under her skin.
Doctors won’t consider a liver transplant until the infection disappears. This could take up to a year of medication and surgeries.
Still, Lopez won’t give up and finds joy in her friends and family. She continues learning, studying and doing coursework, with at-home instruction.
“When I first heard of her at Veterans, she was quite the outspoken one, quite the fighter,” Juarez said. “Several of us took a real interest in her, and she really turned around. She started making better grades. She even started a campus club called Helping Hands, to partner students with kids who needed some help.”
Added Juarez, “She was completely turning her life around in a positive way, and then the diagnosis happened. And she is still helping others, with other kids in the hospital, and friends and families, showing them the courage to get through the toughest times. And her mom is amazing. I think she is the role model for Jaelynn’s strength.”
Garza, a nurse and clinical supervisor at a pediatric clinic, left her job to tend to her daughter. She worries about Lopez’s younger sister, Hailey, now a sophomore at Veterans. When one child is struggling, sometimes others suffer, she said, but Hailey and Garza’s two grown sons, Kaleb and Jordan Flores, are caring and supportive.
“There have been so many times I didn’t know how to bear it,” Garza said, “but Jaelynn and I have kept each other going. She knows how to cheer me up, get me laughing.”
And, friends continue to bring the family hope.
Just before Thanksgiving, only a week after another surgery, Lopez and her mom visited JISD’s new Wortham Oaks Elementary School to receive more than $1,000, raised by a Student Council-led “Coins for a Cause,” to mitigate medical costs. Dozens of pupils and staffers gathered in the office to meet her. Principal Yvonne Muñoz and several educators, who also knew the family at Crestview Elementary School, greeted them with hugs, smiles and a few tears.
As Crestview’s principal, Muñoz was introduced to the family when Lopez and her sister were students; she remained in touch, and proposed the fundraiser to the Student Council months ago.
“It was something they could do to help a fellow Judson student, and they loved it. Jaelynn is really amazing. She has a great heart,” she said.
Council president Abram Martinez presented the check to Lopez.
“I’m going to save this for my liver transplant,” she told him.
Then, the children circled around the teen to hear her story. She and her mother had created a big poster filled with photos showing her recent woes, plus happier times with friends, doctors and family.
“This is a battle I wouldn’t want anyone to go through. I’ve lost more than 100 pounds. I bruise like a cantaloupe. I take like 23 pills a day. But, I’ve learned to cherish every minute,” Lopez told them. “I want to be a nurse for cancer kids someday, because I know exactly what they are going through. And, I’m going to keep fighting.”
To make a donation, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/daughter-amp-student-fighting-lukemia.