This year has offered more than its share of lemons.
But for our beloved nephew, who we call Little Julio, the challenges have exceeded what most of the rest of us have known.
Two years ago, Julio Piña was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was 34 at the time, a Navy veteran and was working for the federal government in California, where he lives with his wife, Liz. The medical team that supported them attacked the cancer with every available source.
After months of surgery and treatments, he was deemed cancer free.
That Thanksgiving was the first year he and Liz had not been sitting at our table since he got home from abroad in service in the Navy. Last year, they were back, enjoying turkey and all the trimmings — and our friend’s pistachio salad.
Little Julio and Liz love Louisiana almost as much as we do. I can’t count the number of times they’ve visited us aside from the traditional Thanksgiving sojourn. They enjoyed Festival International, canoeing at Lake Martin in the spring and Congé at Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau.
After nearly two years of good health, in a routine MRI in September, doctors discovered significant growth of multiple new tumors along the left side of Julio’s brain. Doctors said surgery and treatment were no longer options.
The neuro-oncologist was able to connect Julio with a doctor at the National Institutes of Health and help him get in a clinical trial specifically for his type of tumor (anaplastic ependymoma). Julio began treatment in October in Bethesda, Maryland.
The treatments seemed to be going well, but the frequent trips from the West to East coasts were exhausting. So, two weeks ago, Liz and Julio decided to drive across the country for an extended stay in the D.C. area.
They made it as far as Tulsa.
Julio began to have a major medical incident and ended up in the hospital there with the possibility of emergency brain surgery. After several days of debate, deliberation, discussion and a careful weighing of all the odds, Julio, Liz and multiple medical teams across the country made the decision for him to travel back to San Francisco on a commercial flight to have the necessary surgery.
After a series of small miracles, they made it to California and the surgeon who removed his original tumor in 2018 performed surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Much to everyone’s surprise, the doctor was able to get all the tumors. He was, however, not able to get all the cancer cells. The surgery has given the young couple and the rest of the folks who love Little Julio more time. We are praying that the gift of time will offer more miracles with the possibilities of a better treatment.
Even so, at this point, Little Julio is home. His mom is there too. Within days of surgery, he was up and about helping his mom cook. Liz shared a photograph of mother and son cooking in their California kitchen on social media. I barely looked at the photograph because I was so relieved he was doing well.
However, that evening, a friend I haven’t seen in years sent me a message. Cynthia Thompson explained that she had tried to send a Facebook message to Liz but was concerned Liz might not read it since they did not know each other. So, she sent her message me in hopes I could get it to Liz.
The message read: “My name is Cynthia Thompson. My family and I live in Lafayette, La. I am friends with Jan and have been following Julio’s story. Y’all are in our prayers. Someone shared the photo of Julio and his mom cooking with me because they noticed our lemonade cup sitting on the kitchen counter. My family business is Roy’s Fresh Lemonade. My dad is Roy. It was awesome to see our cup all the way in California!
“It has been a difficult year for us due to the pandemic and not being able to have fairs or festivals. But our year is nothing compared to the battle your family is faced with. We would love to send some Roy’s to you and your family. Let me know if you are interested. Julio is in our prayers.”
And with that message, and the promise of lemonade on its way across the country, my faith in humanity was boosted once again.
On this Thanksgiving, may you all appreciate and enjoy a glass of lemonade, in reality and metaphorically, with those you love.