A half hour after birth, Dawson couldn't breathe. This is common among severely premature infants, but Dawson was born barely a month early, and he was a healthy six pounds, three ounces. Why was such a well-developed infant having trouble expanding his lungs?
Medical staff didn't know it, but leukemia cells were already accumulating in Dawson’s liver and spleen, causing them to swell so much they were pushing against Dawson’s lungs, preventing him from inhaling properly.
Dawson had developed cancer before he was born.
Once Dawson was breathing normally, Mandy and David Lobao brought their baby home, but unusual symptoms accumulated.
“He started getting this weird rash all over his body,” says his mother Mandy. “It would last for ten of fifteen minutes, then it would be gone.
We said, What is this?”
Dawson began throwing up his breast milk. Finally, barely six weeks old, Dawson was screaming inconsolably, as if was in pain.
“Something told me to take his temperature. I called the advice nurse. She said, Get to the emergency room right now.”
When the Lobaos arrived at Sutter Solano Medical Center, they stood by helplessly as physicians ordered an immediate spinal tap, blood tests, and X-rays. A normal white blood cell count is between 4000 and 15,000. Dawson’s was 70,000.
“The doctor told us, We’re sending you to Children’s Hospital immediately.”
The Lobao family found themselves in the back of an ambulance being rushed to Children’s Hospital in Oakland.
When they arrived, Dawson received his second spinal tap within a matter of hours. More IVs, sedation, and even a bone marrow aspiration, which is collecting bone marrow fluid through a needle injected into bone. His shocked and confused parents were quarantined, scrubbed, and marched to 5 South Ward, an air-filtered unit for patients whose immune system is compromised.
Mandy and David Lobao were informed that Dawson had both acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), two different phenotypes of a very aggressive cancer. The infant would be undergoing chemotherapy immediately.
Mandy collapsed on the floor crying. She wouldn’t leave the hospital again for seven months.
During that time, Mandy and David estimate that their infant underwent general anesthesia 25 times, and chemotherapy seven times. “They knocked him out six or seven times in the first month,” says his father.
Dawson’s mother did what mothers do. She blamed herself. She worked as a dental hygienist for children. Was it the X-rays? She used cleaning products in her kitchen. Maybe they were they toxic?
Doctor Jennifer Michlitsch, Associate Hematologist/Oncologist at Children’s, told them to banish such thoughts. Dawson’s disease was the product of an astoundingly unlucky roll of the dice. Acute leukemias in infants occur in one per 5 million births. Infants born with such a rare cancer begin their lives with a 30% - 50% chance of survival, and only if they undergo a difficult regimen of chemotherapy.
Dawson was David and Mandy’s first child. This was not what they had planned for their lives. Why did this happen?
The answer came as all such answers do: through a community.
One in a million in more ways than one.
Dawson was the only baby in the chemotherapy ward. Older kids began to comment on Dawson’s uncanny ability to emerge from his harrowing treatments with a smile.
“Kids with cancer would come by our room in the early morning before their treatments and say, Can we see Dawson?” Mandy remembers.
“The teenagers especially would say, Wow, your baby has cancer? I was ready to give up, because treatment is painful, but if he can go through his treatment, so can I.
My husband and I started thinking, Dawson might be going through this, but he is helping other kids to go through this, too.”
With his “showstopper smile,” Dawson became a mini-celebrity among the kids battling cancer, who named him Awesome Dawson. Soon “the beacon of light and positivity” was in demand for photo shoots with celebrities volunteering to draw attention to childhood cancers. Brad Pitt was star-struck when he met Dawson. Too bad Dawson can’t sign autographs yet.
Now ten months old, Dawson’s cancer is in remission, and he’s kept pace with all his developmental milestones-- in fact he may be a step ahead. He imitates facial expressions and is motivated to learn to walk. You would never know he’s spent more than half his life undergoing an ordeal even adults find difficult to bear.
“Having a kid with cancer opened our eyes up to a whole new world we never knew,” says Mandy. “Now that we know, we can’t ever turn our back on it. I’m going to do some volunteer work to give back. We still bring Dawson back to the kids on the cancer ward. We tell them, Dawson hasn’t forgotten you.”
Mandy’s Tips For Parents of Children with Cancer:
- Stay Off Internet Cancer Sites: “It will drive you crazy. Anybody can post anything.” All cancers are unique. This is about managing your anxiety, not provoking it.
- Learn To Surrender: “Little is in your control. Allow yourself to trust the doctors and nurses. They are the best of the best, and they are there for love of the children.”
- Take Breaks: “Parents should take one hour for themselves every single day. Children’s Hospital has a beautiful courtyard. Even if you’re not religious, quiet time in the chapel is restoring. The chaplain is extremely helpful. Marriages need time, too.”
- Get Out of Your Head: Dave says, “Get to know the other families going through the same thing you are.” Mandy agrees. “If I had stayed in our room, I would have been lost in my negative thoughts.”
- Laugh: Kids are funny. Mishaps will occur. You will make many mistakes. Learn to laugh even amid tears and rage. Life isn’t fair, but it sure is funny.
- Be the Match: Each year, 10,000 patients require a marrow transplant from an unrelated donor, but only half receive one. They depend on people like you. Mandy recommends registering at marrow.org.