"To say 'unheard of' is an understatement," says Eileen Lauzardo. Two years ago, she and her husband, Michael, learned that their children, Ryan and Keira, had developed different forms of leukemia within months of each other.
Such an ordeal would crumble most families. But for the Lauzardos, the experience has sent them on a different journey, one that includes a new family member and a chance to help children worldwide improve their odds for cancer recovery.
Ryan, who was 5 in 2003, had looked pale to the Lauzardos, both of whom are physicians. Children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia usually suffer from fevers, anemia, frequent bruises and nosebleeds. "[Ryan] was acting fine," remembers Eileen, "going strong, no infections."
Once Ryan's ALL diagnosis was confirmed, he endured six months of intensive chemotherapy that kept him out of school and away from friends and other activities. The good news was that ALL is a very treatable form of leukemia, says Lauzardo, with survival rates around 80 percent after five years of remission. "[Ryan's] prognosis is excellent," she adds.
The Lauzardos' hope for their son, however, was soon overshadowed by their daughter's diagnosis. Keira, which is Gaelic for "dark-haired princess," had been born in 2002 with a congenital heart defect that required major heart surgery a year later. "She did remarkably well," says Lauzardo, even though Keira had trouble gaining weight, and some abnormalities had been discovered in her blood.
Doctors were puzzled why Keira's condition continued to deteriorate after surgery. She had even survived an episode of cardiac arrest at age 1. More blood work and other tests revealed that Keira had an unusually rare form of acute myelogenous leukemia. "It surprised everyone," Lauzardo says of the diagnosis, "particularly with her heart ailment."
Survival rates for children with AML are in the 40-50 percent range, according to St. Jude's Research Hospital. While nearly 3,000 children a year develop ALL, 500 will develop AML.
But Keira received treatment for the AML and, for the first time, says Lauzardo, "she thrived, developed and grew."
Leukemia is a form of cancer that produces an abnormally large number of white blood cells in bone marrow, so a bone marrow transplant is often a successful option. A good donor match had been found for Keira, but she didn't live long enough for the operation.
She died in 2004, "a year to the day after her heart surgery," Lauzardo says. Large photos of the dark-haired, dark-eyed smiling baby now surround the Lauzardos' fireplace. One photo of an almost-chubby Keira dressed in a red-and-white-checkered outfit was taken just a few months before her death.
Lauzardo credits her faith, along with support from her church and friends, for helping her family survive these painful times. "People did things for us that needed to be done, without us asking," she says, including mowing the lawn and surprising the family with outdoor Christmas decorations.
The doctors treating the Lauzardo children, many in practice for more than 30 years, had worked with just a couple of other families who had two different leukemias in their children, Lauzardo says. "We really believe that God had a plan for our family."
That plan has finally taken a turn for the better. After Ryan completed chemotherapy, the Lauzardos participated in a Family Reaching Out to Cancer Kids weekend sponsored by the American Cancer Society. For the first time, they met other families who were dealing with leukemia. In the hospital, Lauzardo explains, children have to be isolated because of infection risks. "We never really connected with other families. [ROCK] was a good opportunity to interact with other parents," she says.
Last year, a nurse who saw Ryan during his clinic visits suggested that he model in the Cure By Design event, a local fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society.
"We've made friendships that have lasted," Lauzardo says of the fashion show. Ryan enjoyed participating so much that he has agreed to model for this year's show, which takes place Sunday at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
The Lauzardos are also keeping Keira's memory alive by creating the Keira Grace Foundation for Children's Cancer, in partnership with St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. With its international outreach program, St. Jude's has dramatically improved cancer survival rates for children around the world.
The foundation's first project will be an outreach program in the Dominican Republic.
"[Children] get enough care to get diagnosed, but not treated," Lauzardo says. "We're taking kids and families who experienced what we did with our daughter and moving them to our experience with our son." The project already has a supervising doctor who will visit the United States in May.
In June, the Lauzardos will travel to Guatemala to adopt 3-month-old Sophia Beverly. Lauzardo says that dealing with Ryan and Keira's illnesses "made us realize how important kids are to us." Sophia will not only be greatly loved by her new family, she'll have something else in common: She's Hispanic, as is her soon-to-be father Michael, whose family hails from Cuba.