A report by José de Jesús Ortiz for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Two decades after Carlos Martinez wandered the streets of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, in a discouraging search for the father he never met, a childhood friend made a more desperate march through their hometown in hopes of saving his sister’s life.
Emil Fernandez was running out of hope and time last month as his younger sister Camille was losing her fight with acute myelogenous leukemia. One doctor already had declared that Camille’s relapsed leukemia was untreatable. She and her family refused to accept that death sentence.
They wrote numerous letters to hospitals and groups in the Dominican and the United States begging for help. They compensated for a lack of funds with a deep devotion, persistence and ingenuity before finally reconnecting late last month with a Cardinals All-Star who enthusiastically joined Camille’s fight and, equally important, enlisted several crucial St. Louis allies.
There’s no guarantee that Camille will beat her cancer. It’s certain, however, that her case would have been hopeless if Martinez and his foundation had not rallied to bring her to Mercy Hospital last Sunday to start chemotherapy in hopes of eventually having a life-saving bone marrow transplant.
Camille was diagnosed with leukemia in 2015. She began to fight the blood cancer almost immediately and went into remission. She had a recurrence in August, setting her family on an anguished quest for help.
The impoverished Fernandez family knocked on doors and kept searching for help until they found it with the aid of Martinez. He understood their sense of hopelessness because he felt it while growing up.
“This desire to help is something that Carlos has had since he was a child,” Martinez’s wife, Laura Rivas, said. “He didn’t have a father. He didn’t have his mother. He was raised by his grandmother.
“But he has something in his heart that although he didn’t have any of those things, he can now help people who may need help. He grew up with that in his mind. He may not have had a father’s presence, but he knows he can help any child now that may need help.”
MARTINEZ, PUJOLS FOUNDATIONS TEAM UP
They found their last-ditch hope late last month where their fight began late, at home. Former Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols’ foundation and Martinez’s Tsunami Waves Foundation had brought a group of St. Louis doctors and dentists to Puerto Plata on a medical mission trip. The Pujols Foundation has sponsored annual medical missions with St. Louis doctors to the southern part of the Caribbean island since 2007.
The former Cardinals great agreed to move this year’s mission to Martinez’s hometown on the island’s north coast after Martinez took over the Pujols Foundation’s annual golf tournament in St. Louis. Two local pediatricians, two family practice doctors and a dentist flew from St. Louis to the Dominican Republic after the Thanksgiving weekend with Martinez, his wife, Tsunami Waves Foundation director Marisa Diaz and a few support staff.
Pujols, a future Hall of Famer who hit 445 of his 614 career home runs during his first 11 seasons in the majors with the Cardinals, joined the group in Puerto Plata. With the help of a few doctors from the Dominican, the group treated more than 2,000 patients during their week on the mission.
As has usually been the case, they mostly saw patients with skin diseases such as scabies, eczema and other illnesses that are treated with antibiotics, lotions and creams. Nine of the patients who visited the mission’s doctors had more severe illnesses. Those nine needed the St. Louis doctors and the Martinez and Pujols foundations to connect them with the right people for surgeries and donations to pay for their care.
“For several of them it’s going to be coming here for surgeries that they can’t get in the Dominican or treatments they can’t get,” said Dr. Rob Hanson, a pediatric oncologist at Mercy. “Nothing this complicated.”
Camille’s case is dramatically more complicated. She wasn’t expected to live beyond two months without more medical care. The mission trip was almost over when Camille’s mother, Leonor Estrella, made a plea to Martinez’s mother in-law, Rosi Amparo Quesada, who told Martinez’s wife about Camille’s battle.
Rivas was moved to tears by Camille’s prognosis. She vowed to do anything she could to help. Rivas’ first move was to inform Diaz, who also broke down after hearing about the odds against the 17-year-old girl.
Then they pleaded with Hanson, who initially saw little hope for Camille after reviewing the medical reports. He agreed to see her nonetheless on the final day of the mission trip at the end of November.
‘THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO’
“My initial inclination was there’s nothing we can do,” Hanson said. “This kind of leukemia when it comes back it’s very hard to treat. Even in the U.S. there’s just not really a way that I could foresee that we would be able to get her to the U.S. promptly, get treatment covered, paid for and eventually potentially get a bone marrow transplant, which was really the only thing to save her life.
“So I thought, ‘There’s really no way that we could do this. All I’m going to be able to do is just kind of offer her comfort measures on the last days of her life.’ So that’s where my head’s at. Then I met the family and I met the girl, and my heart wouldn’t let me break the news to her.”
The clock was already working against them. There was a possibility that Camille could die before they could get her to St. Louis.
Diaz, a former Cardinals employee, worked her contacts in the Dominican and here to secure a medical travel visa to the U.S. for Camille, her older brother Emil and her older sister Heidi, who is a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant.
“We told them while we were there that we would do everything we could to try to bring her here, but that it was a long shot,” Hanson said. “I really didn’t think that we were going to be able to pull everything together to get her here in the right time frame and be able to treat her here.”
The travel visas were secured, astonishingly, within six days. St. Louis businessman Travis H. Brown of Wings of Hope donated the use of his plane to fly Camille and her two older siblings to St. Louis last Sunday night.
Hanson lobbied Mercy administrators to donate free care. He also worked with Dr. Shalini Shenoy, the director of St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s oncology program, to work with her administrators to bring Children’s Hospital on board to provide free care if Camille gets well enough to require a bone marrow transplant there.
Jazz Pharmaceuticals promised to donate more than $250,000 in medication for Camille’s care.
“All of that just happened on first ask,” Hanson said. “Every door we knocked on opened. And everything that we needed fell into place almost immediately.”
‘I DON’T WANT TO SEE HER DIE’
Martinez, 26, was moved to tears inside Camille’s hospital room Monday as he expressed the pride he feels to help a family that walked the same streets he did as a child.
He knows all too well how it feels to have doors shut in his face and feel alone. That was his story most of his childhood because his mother died when he was a baby and his father never claimed him.
He appreciates the desperation the impoverished Fernandez family felt as they raised money for Camille’s medical costs through raffles, small fundraising dinners and intimate Christian music concerts in Puerto Plata. He identified with Camille’s plight in part because she also grew up without a father.
“I never had a situation similar to this, but I know what it feels to not have a father when you need one to help you,” Martinez said. “I’m a father now. In my heart I think we must help and be united. You wouldn’t want to see your son suffer so much. I don’t want to see her die.
“When they told me that their father isn’t around and that they don’t have sufficient funds to fight this, I felt like they were my children that needed help. I automatically told them that we would work hard together as we always have. I know we can help them. It hit me in my heart. I just cried. We’re here on this Earth to help others.”
Martinez and Rivas aren’t just lending their name to this fight. They greeted Camille and her siblings at the airport Sunday evening and drove them to Mercy to check in. Their two young sons even sent Camille two large teddy bears.
Martinez and Rivas were back at the hospital Monday morning as Camille began treatment. She had a close look at Martinez’s playful personality while also benefiting from Rivas’ attentiveness at the side of her hospital bed.
“They’re really good people,” Camille said. “You don’t ever imagine that people who are so famous would interact with you like they’ve known you all your life. They really have a big heart and they welcome you with love and hospitality that makes you feel nice.”
Martinez and Rivas also secured an apartment for the family near Mercy. They took Emil and Heidi shopping Monday for winter clothes.
TREATMENT COMES WITH NO GUARANTEES
Camille started chemotherapy Tuesday. She received another round of chemo Thursday. If all goes well, she’ll receive another round of chemo Sunday and then three spinal taps and more chemo next week.
Then they must wait and hope Camille’s cancer goes into remission so that she can move to St. Louis Children’s Hospital for the bone marrow transplant that she needs to save her life.
“We need to get her in remission,” Hanson said. “Best-case scenario we can do that in about 35-40 days. It potentially could take longer than that. And potentially it might not happen at all.”
Because of Pujols’ legacy and the relationships his foundation established over 10 years of making medical missions to his native Dominican, Martinez was able to follow his example and help Camille get the medical care she needs in St. Louis. The odds are long, but Martinez’s Tsunami Waves Foundation has given her another chance.
The only guarantee is that Martinez and his family and foundation are committed to help, and that’s really all you can ask.
“This,” Rivas said, “is the most important thing we’ve ever done.”