21-year-old Yesenia Ruiz-Rojo was four months pregnant when she arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in Texas. She had also just discovered she was facing aggressive liver cancer; and in September 2014, doctors gave Ruiz-Rojo the grim news that she had only four to six months to live.
However, miraculously, on January 10th she celebrated her son’s first birthday.
Ruiz-Rojo said that she didn’t focus too much on her cancer during her pregnancy because she wanted her baby to survive.
She said, “The only thing I could think about was my baby. Just have the baby, I told myself, and the rest will figure itself out.”
Lt. Col. (Dr.) Raul Palacios, the chief of interventional radiology at BAMC, said that the odds were stacked against Ruiz-Rojo because current literature and case reports show that women with that type of aggressive cancer don’t live very long. He said, “There was nothing out there we found in conventional medicine that would offer her any hope. We weren’t aware of anything in the past that had been tried successfully.”
Thankfully, Ruiz-Rojo and her doctors refused to give up and experts from more than a dozen specialties met to explore every possible treatment option.
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According to the US Department of Defense, doctors decided on a therapy called selective internal radiation therapy with Y-90, which places tiny radioactive particles in the patient’s artery that feeds the liver tumors. Dr. Palacios said the tumor consumes the particles and either shrinks or dies. The team at BAMC felt Y-90 would offer the least risk to mother and baby.
Dr. Palacios said, “We held our breath, acknowledged Mrs. Ruiz-Rojo’s desires, and made the best educated decision with what we knew at the time.” The treatment took six weeks but in January 2014, Ruiz-Rojo went on to have a healthy baby boy who she named Luke. Dr. Palacios said, “To me, it is nothing short of a miracle. I sincerely doubt I will ever again witness what we’ve seen with Yesenia.”
Unfortunately, last March Ruiz-Rojo’s health deteriorated to a point where she was unable to care for her son. In fact, she was so ill that doctors called her family in to say their goodbyes; but Ruiz-Rojo beat the odds once again after nearly two-dozen hospitalizations. In the summer, Ruiz-Rojo threw Luke a 6-month-old birthday party because she wasn’t sure she would make it to his first birthday.
She said, “I went all out. I wanted him to see pictures of me and him and have happy memories.”
Amazingly, Ruiz-Rojo is doing better and is caring for Luke again. Ruiz-Rojo said, “I do everything now but change his diapers. It makes me sad that there are moms who take this gift for granted.” Now she is on a liver transplant list but believes her days are numbered. She concluded, “I honestly didn’t think I’d live to see another birthday. This past year has been a journey, but it’s made me appreciate what I have so much more.”
Dr. Palacios said there are “no words to describe the joy” he feels when patients do well. He said, “In my heart, I feel Yesenia was in the right place at the right time with the right people. BAMC had a chance to help and did, it says a lot for the [Department of Defense].”
Staff nurse Veronica Dominguez also expressed appreciation for her time with Ruiz-Rojo. She said, “As a nurse, you always want to touch someone’s life. To see her baby growing and Yesenia still able to care for him … it makes what we do every day so worthwhile.”