Home » Baylor-affiliated clinic brings cancer care to Valley children
February 15, 2003 – Findings, Baylor College of Medicine
By Lori Williams
In the summer of 2000, the comfortable world enjoyed by Ezequiel and Letty Torres and their three children in the balmy Texas Valley changed forever.
Letty was worried about Danny, who was then two years old. The energetic, happy toddler was very pale. He didn’t want to play with big brother Antonio or sister Diana. Letty started to notice some red spots appearing on his body. “I knew something was wrong so I took him to the hospital.
“They came out and told me, ‘Your child has cancer.’ It took me a long time to react. I didn’t even know what to think. Then, I started crying. I called my husband and my mother. My mom was scared, too. Everybody was scared.”
The Torres family was sent to Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston to begin treatment for Danny. The diagnosis was leukemia, a form of cancer that attacks at least 3,200 children in the United States each year. Treatment for the disease is vastly improved over the past few decades, and children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, also known as ALL, have an 80 percent chance of being cured of their disease. Success rates for treating other forms of leukemia vary with the disease.
Letty and Ezequiel were forced to split up their family, sending the older children to the homes of relatives while Danny received treatment in Houston. “It was three months, but it seemed like a long time,” Letty said.
A few months later, their lives changed again. On June 22, 2001, a hot summer day under perfectly blue skies, the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children’s Cancer and Hematology Clinic opened in McAllen. A joint project of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and the Vannie E. Cook Cancer Foundation, the clinic brings comprehensive pediatric cancer services to the Valley, services that never existed there before. For the Torres family, it was a dream come true.
“Without the clinic opening here, we would have had to continue to make that long trip to Houston for Danny’s treatment each month. It is so much easier now.”
With the new clinic in McAllen, the Torres family’s trip has been reduced by about six hours each way.
“We are really happy. He gets such good care from the doctor here – just like the doctors in Houston,” Letty said.
The doctor – Juan Carlos Bernini, MD – quickly became part of the medical community in the Valley after arriving in the spring of 2001. Bernini, a native of Costa Rica who had previously served as assistant director at Cook Children’s Specialty Clinic in Midland, moved to McAllen with his wife, Cynthia, and 5-year-old son, Giancarlo. The intimacy of his new close-knit community is an advantage he appreciates. One of the best parts of his job, he told the local newspaper, is being able to get a call at 2 a.m. and be at a child’s hospital bedside in 10 minutes.
Physicians in the Valley have welcomed this new clinic that provides vital services so close to home. And the direct link to the finest pediatric cancer research at Baylor is an added reassurance. Baylor faculty members in Houston also are pleased. What was an idea presented by the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation is now a real service, providing care quickly to more patients than expected. The clinic has grown quickly. Within the first year, the clinic enrolled 400 patients – four times as many as had been expected. To help with the extra load, another physician, Rodrigo Erana, MD, joined Bernini last summer. The patient numbers are now over 600.
The Vannie Cook Clinic is named for the late businessman-philanthropist of the same name. The impetus for its development began with Kenneth Landrum, MD, president of the Vannie Cook Foundation and a Baylor graduate, who knew of the lack of coordinated facilities for pediatric cancer care in his area and saw the clinic as an important way for the foundation to provide the community with expertise it lacked. David Poplack, MD, director of Texas Children’s Cancer Center, quickly shared his vision. What could be better than the best care for children with cancer or blood disorders? What could be better than putting it in their own neighborhood?
“The clinic is beautiful. The care these children are receiving is state-of-the-art,” said Poplack. “It’s devastating to families to receive a serious diagnosis like cancer in their child. But it’s reassuring to be able to tell them that they will receive superb care and that the prognosis for childhood cancer has dramatically improved.”
For the Torres family, there is no doubt that the new clinic offers something better. Danny is now four years old and his treatment is going very well.
“Everybody is happy now. The clinic here – it keeps our family together,” said Letty. “When Antonio and Diana don’t have school, they come to the clinic with Danny and me. It is a very good thing.”