During her monthlong stay in the hospital, the 6-year-old became interested in painting, and when she was released to go home, her parents, Cesar Ramos and Liliana Jimenez, took home about 50 colorful canvases, many of them featuring a bright rainbow.
Alena has been in and out of the hospital since October, when her parents, residents of Oakland, received the heartbreaking news that she has Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. They have leaned heavily on their faith and God’s mercy.
“He’s still working in our lives, and he’s still writing the story,” Ramos said.
FINDING A DIAGNOSIS
It started off with what seemed like a cold, Jimenez said, and multiple doctors agreed it was probably just a cold.
But her symptoms weren’t dissipating, her mother said, and, in fact, Alena was feeling worse.
“I noticed some big bruises on her body, and we thought maybe it was from playing,” Jimenez said. “Her lymph nodes started to swell up, and that was also alarming. And it all started pretty much all at once.”
Another trip to an urgent care resulted in the same diagnosis.
“Usually, you feel comforted when the doctors tell you what it is, but it wasn’t comforting,” Jimenez said. “She wasn’t herself; she was feeling very tired and laying down and taking a nap. She was getting dark circles under her eyes, and she doesn’t get that. The bruising and the lymph nodes — you know it’s more than a cold.”
After Jimenez noticed red spots on Alena’s neck, she looked up all the symptoms and discovered it could be leukemia.
“I was hoping it was Google scaring me,” Jimenez said.
A trip to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children confirmed the worst: Alena had cancer.
“It felt like my world was completing changing,” Ramos said.
Alena was considered a high-risk patient because 92% of her blood cells contained cancer, he said. She immediately underwent surgery to have a port inserted so she could start chemotherapy. She had blood transfusions and gave frequent bone marrow samples. Her parents said she lost her appetite and wasn’t getting enough nutrients, so her hospital visit lasted a month.
She went home the first week of November but was only there two days before she spiked a fever reaching 104 degrees and had to go back into the hospital.
“I felt like I was going to lose my daughter,” Ramos said.
Doctors determined Alena had developed a staph infection in her blood and stopped the cancer treatments to treat the infection. The family was hopeful she would be home by Thanksgiving, but she was in the hospital for another month.
In December, Alena resumed chemotherapy, only to contract COVID-19 just before Christmas. Because their daughter’s immune system is compromised, Ramos and Jimenez and their three children have stayed at home — besides twice-weekly hospital visits — to avoid germs.
This week is the bone marrow test to see if Alena is in remission.
“She didn’t make it at the last bone marrow, but we’re hoping she has reached that goal that they have for her,” Jimenez said.
“We’re praying that she’s in remission,” Ramos said. “We see a change in her, a glow in her; she’s running, playing.”
Jimenez and Ramos are happy to see Alena — the spunky child with the bubbly personality and knack for pulling pranks — feeling better. She’s been well enough to play with her younger brother and sister and Daisy, their mini goldendoodle.
Ramos said their faith and the prayers of many have helped the family through this ordeal.
Ramos and Jimenez have watched their community rally around their little girl during her cancer fight — their religious family at Mosaic Church, the students and teachers at Oakland Avenue Charter School, their friends, their coworkers and their extended family.
Before the winter break, Oakland Avenue Charter School held a Superhero Day in honor of Alena, a kindergartner. Students could donate one dollar to dress up in costume. Families gave so much more than that — the family was presented with $2,900.
In addition to the funds, parents have been sending activities and toys to school to be given to Alena when she has to go in the hospital for treatment.
“God’s asking us to share our story, and we got the support, and we need the prayers,” Ramos said. “And the community has been so great to us. It’s really great to see a community come out to support you and pray for you. We’ve got the churches in Mexico praying for us.”
‘GOD MADE ME STRONG”
Ramos said Alena was scared to let anyone near her port to administer the medicine and nurses had to hold her down. He told her God was helping him get through this and He could help her, too.
“We prayer together now,” he said. “And I think by the third prayer before going back to the hospital — we’re going to pray for courage and strength and for them to do what they need to do. On the way to the hospital she called Grandma, and she called my dad, and they prayed together on the phone.”
He said Alena was proud of herself after the hospital visit.
“She said, ‘Papa, I didn’t feel anything,’” Ramos said. “‘The nurse didn’t have to hold me down. Papa, it’s God. God made me strong.’ My daughter said, ‘I believe in God now.’
“It’s made us stronger,” he said.
A LIGHT IN THEIR LIFE
“Alena means ‘Light,’ and I just feel like she’s really been that girl in her family and maybe in the community in the future,” Ramos said. “I tell her people are helping her and (said), ‘What do you think? Do you want to help people, too?’”
She responded by saying she saw a little boy in the hospital and wanted to buy a present for him.
“You think you have it all figured out, and God comes in,” Ramos said. “You have to share your love with God, share your wealth with people. It’s made me be more grateful, more simple, see what I have around me. … I need to be more giving.
“Family has been most important, and our health is important, and if we’re able to give to others, whether it’s prayers or love or giving the shirt off our back, we’ve had that feeling of giving back.”
Ramos and Jimenez are hoping to start a foundation in the spring that will allow them to give to others and teach their children about sharing with people who don’t have the love and support of family and community. They witnessed many young patients whose parents weren’t able to stay with their children because of commitments with work or other family members.
Jimenez and Ramos have a list of people who have provided support, including the hospital and its nurses and doctors; the charter school; three organizations, B Positive Foundation for grant money, the Joy Jar from Jessie Reese Foundation (Never Ever Give Up) and LiveLikeCameron Foundation; the charter school and its parents and staff; West Orange Baptist Church; and the Ramos family.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.