Riley Balcita was a normal, healthy 8-year-old boy on September 28, 2016, who loves school, is a giraffe fanatic, and playing with legos and nerf guns. His pediatrician examined him that day for his annual check-up. She told him, “Everything is great. See you next year!” Little did we know how wrong she was.
The next morning, Riley woke up complaining that he couldn’t feel his leg. His mother chalked it up to sleeping on his leg wrong and jumping all over the driveway he and his brother did the evening before. She reassured him that he was fine and “just needed to walk it off” and put him on the bus. The school called to have him picked up because he could not walk.
Riley was taken to Children’s Urgent Care in Wexford where they took X-rays and diagnosed him with a sprained ankle. He hobbled around on crutches that Mr. H (mom’s fiancé) fitted to his small stature out of his grandmother’s set which earned him the nickname of “Tiny Tim.” After a week, his mom noticed his foot had an odd rash and a marble-sized lump. She took him back to Children’s Urgent Care thinking he had a spider bite. This time, the doctor instructed them to go to the ER at Children’s Hospital remarking, “They will probably laugh at me.” The doctor thought he had a bone infection and would probably need 6 months of IV antibiotics to cure the ailment. Riley’s mom prayed the entire way to Lawrenceville that it wouldn’t be a bone infection. Ever hear the saying, “Be careful of what you wish for because you just might get it.”? God answered her prayer and it wasn’t a bone infection.
The next thing Riley and his mom knew they were in an ER room with Dr. Close. She introduced herself as the oncologist fellow. Both of them wondered what part of the body she specialized in as neither had ever heard of an oncologist before. The bone marrow biopsy results revealed B Cell, Philadelphia Chromosome, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
This started a two-year treatment plan that included intense chemotherapy. He was in and out of Children’s for months at a time. He spent the month of October 2016 in the hospital returning home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He had intense chemotherapy from January through March 2017 which resulted in multiple allergic reactions to blood and platelet transfusions and multiple chemotherapy drugs. Chemo nicknamed “The Peg” landed him in ICU right before Valentine’s Day. He almost lost his fight that day but bounced back once they got his meds regulated.
Mrs. Bollens came to their house after her ordinary school day to teach her missing 3rd-grade student. In April 2017, Riley took PSSA’s (the state’s standardized tests). He only missed two in math and five in English. Not bad for a kid that only got five hours of school each week, had regular spinal taps with high doses of chemo, and almost died a few months earlier.
Riley went back to school in October 2018 for 4th grade. Things went well in the second year of treatment during the maintenance phase. He had times of going back to the hospital for fevers. Finally, Riley rang the bell to signify the completion of treatment on October 10, 2018, at age 10. What a celebration it was with all his friends, family, and supporters around him. He got his port out and went on his Make-A-Wish trip to Orlando Studios in Florida for the Harry Potter Wizarding experience.
The next three months passed quickly as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's were right after returning home from the trip. At Qai’s (Riley’s older brother) birthday party on January 13, 2019, Riley’s mom got an odd call from Dr. Close about his test results from the prior week. She called back after the party to deliver the devastating news that it was back. This time, Riley had Chronic Myeloid Leukemia requiring a Bone Marrow Transplant. He was pulled out of West View Elementary School for the remainder of his 5th-grade year to be homebound taught again. Riley went back to Children’s in February 2019 to get a port implanted, testicular tissue harvested, and more chemo treatments. He and his family waited and prayed for a suitable donor to be found. A 12 out of 12 live donor was identified in May. A month after he turned 11, Riley had his bone marrow transplant on August 30, 2019, and spent the next 26 days in the hospital recovering from this procedure. Not bad as the original estimate from the doctors was to be in the hospital for 6 – 8 weeks.
Since leaving Children’s September 25, 2019, Riley has been improving and his immune system is getting stronger. He still goes to the oncology clinic each week, is on a strict bone marrow transplant diet, and avoids crowds. He is being homebound schooled again for 6th and 7th grades. Last year, we got to meet our bone marrow donor. She is a nurse that lives in St. Louis, MO.
During the last four and a half years, Riley spends a lot of time on 9B of Children’s hospital. Each time, we would be on the list for services by Lending Hearts. He loves the yoga, meditation, and massage therapy offered. Each visit from the Lending Hearts team helped lift Riley’s spirits, help relax him, and got him out of bed. The massage therapy really helped as Riley’s muscles would tense up from the various chemo drugs. Amy’s breathing techniques help Riley cope with the difficulties he was having with port changes and other procedures. Chrystal’s yoga got Riley out of bed and helped manage the stress of treatment. Lending Heart’s lunches in the family kitchen are a great benefit to the families on 9B. It is a great diversion from the same old food in the cafeteria and allows them to mix with other families to create a much-needed community amongst them.
Outside of the hospital, Lending Hearts' monthly events are another must-needed diversion for families. The events are scheduled that take into account the compromised immune system of attendees and fun for the whole family. The Pirate Game in September 2019 was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, Riley was still in the hospital for it and his family had to FaceTime his favorite song “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” Riley was out of the hospital for the kite flying event in October 2019. Lending Hearts found the perfect place to hold it on a high school football field. During COVID, we got a box monthly to do art therapy which helped get some socialization and learned some new techniques.
The services of Lending Hearts do a lot to help patient healing. Riley’s four and half years of treatment have gone better because of the treatments given by the wonderful caring people involved with Lending Hearts. There are no words to express our gratitude for all they have done for Riley and his family. All we can say is THANK YOU!