Fighting for their lives, children battling cancer find a community in their corner

Thursday, October 18, 2018 - 13:04
  • Phoenix Mendoza, 3, at left, and Kiyah Tuttle, 16, are this year’s recipients for the Maddy’s Run, a fundraiser that will be held Saturday at Eagle River High School. (Courtesy photos)
  • Kiyah Tuttle, 16, poses for a photo in her handmade Halloween costume. Tuttle, a 16-year-old from Anchorage, is one of two beneficiaries from this year’s Maddy’s Run, which will be held Saturday at Eagle River High School. (Photo courtesy Wendy Tuttle)
  • Phoenix Mendoza poses for a photo while in the hospital. Mendoza, 3, is suffering from leukemia diagnosed this summer. He’s one of two beneficiaries from this weekend’s Maddy’s Run, which will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Eagle River High School. (Photo courtesy Melissa Mendoza)
  • Kiyah Tuttle, 16, is battling leukemia. The brown belt in Karate and Aikido is one of two beneficiaries from this year’s Maddy’s Run, which will be held Saturday at Eagle River High School. (Photo courtesy Wendy Tuttle)
  • From left, Bubba, Frank, Phoenix, Melissa Mendoza and Kolton Diaz pose for a photo at West High, where Frank and Melissa’s two oldest sons play football. The couple’s youngest son, Phoenix, is a 3-year-old battling leukemia. (Photo courtesy Melissa Mendoza)
  • Maddy Brandl (in green sash) participates in the 5k run at Eagle River High School. Photo for the Star by Michael Dinneen

Maddy Brandl’s nickname was “Strong,” so it’s fitting the race held in her honor will benefit a pair of kids who are as tough as they come.

Kiyah Tuttle is a 16-year-old who’s interested in wilderness survival and has a passion for karate. Phoenix Mendoza is a 3-year-old heck-raiser who loves cartoons and tussling with with his football player brothers. Aside from their energetic personalities, Kiyah and Phoenix have something else in common.

They’re fighting for their lives.

Kiyah’s story

A few months ago, Kiyah started to feel a bit weak during martial arts class. The brown belt in both karate and aikido wasn’t able to jump as high and her stamina was lagging. Her mom, Wendy, said her daughter’s reaction was to work even harder.

“She wanted to eat protein snacks and exercise,” Tuttle said.

But then Kiyah got sick — real sick. Her family thought she might have a bad stomach flu, but when Wendy took her to the hospital, the news was terrifying.

“They did a blood test and it came back she had leukemia,” said the mother of five.

What followed was a seemingly never-ending parade of tests, procedures, doctors, nurses and chemotherapy.

“For 76 days she was in the hospital on and off,” Tuttle said.

The speed at which the family’s lives were disrupted was overwhelming. Rather than focusing on home-school classes and karate, they were learning about petechiae and platelet counts.

“It’s just crazy how fast that can happen,” she said.

Kiyah’s treatment continues, but she’s doing better, Tuttle said. She’s been able to help out in karate class (she’s the top student) and she made her own costume for the “Trick or Treat in the Heat” event. Tuttle said she’s been amazed at her daughter’s resilience in the face of cancer.

“She’s always had a really good attitude,” she said.

Battling cancer is a full-time job, and the family has seen expenses mount.

“It just made it so we got behind a little bit,” she said.

So when a social worker at the hospital put Tuttle in touch with the organizers of “Maddy’s Run,” a fundraiser for children fighting cancer, she was extremely grateful.

“That was really, just …”

Tuttle said Kiyah is planning to attend the run, which will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at Eagle River High School. She may even try to run.

“She’s really looking forward to going.”

Phoenix rising

In June, Melissa Mendoza’s youngest son started running a fever. Initially it wasn’t much cause for alarm — little Phoenix was still eating well and seemed to be OK otherwise. As a precaution, Melissa took Phoenix to the doctor’s office, but things still seemed fine and the doctor said to come back Monday if the fever persisted.

But that weekend, Phoenix got worse. He stopped eating and his fever spiked. Melissa brought him back to the doctor, then to the emergency room at Providence Hospital. Numerous tests followed quickly and Mendoza said eventually a doctor came in with news.

“He goes, ‘Man, your son

has a really high white blood count,’ ” she said.

At the time, Mendoza and her husband, Frank, didn’t know what that meant. But the doctor told them.

“We think he might have leukemia,” the doctor told them.

Over the next few days doctors ran a battery of tests to confirm the diagnosis, and on June 12 Phoenix was diagnosed with High-Risk Pre-B Cell Caute Lymphoplastic Leukemia — or ALL. The next day, Phoenix was enduring his first round of chemo.

“I was there with him for 35 days,” she said.

The cancer turned the busy family’s lives upside-down. Frank coaches football at West High, where the couple’s other two boys — Kolton “Koko” Diaz and Zion “Bubba” Mendoza are key members of a team that’s gone to back-to-back state championship games.

“You can imagine life at our house is a little nutty,” she said.

Like the Tuttle family, the Mendozas were put in touch with the Maddy’s Run organizers through the hospital. Wendy said knowing there are people who want to help her son fight leukemia has been a huge help.

“Just the outpouring and the outreach of everybody within the community, at my husband’s work, the kids at school, just everybody has been amazing,” she said.

Phoenix has responded well to treatment, she said, but he’ll have to undergo treatment for at least the next three years. However, his prognosis is good and on most days he’s running around trying to wrestle his big brothers.

“He’s been crazy resilient,” Mendoza said. “I think he’s doing better than we are at times.”

Although the ordeal has been difficult for the family, Mendoza said she’s been heartened by the support she’s received from everyone from strangers to old friends. Hearing the stories of other families who have battled cancer has helped, she said, as have the kind words of people hoping to see her son persevere. Although she and her husband are not originally from Alaska, she said the experience has shown them just how much of a community the state can be.

“Even though it’s so big, yet it’s so, so small,” she said.

Race set for Saturday

Sign-ups for this year’s Fourth Annual Maddy’s Run can be found online at maddysrunak.com or on the group’s Facebook page. The run is held each year in honor of Maddy Brandl, an 11-year-old Eagle River girl who died in 2016. First held to help Brandl’s family with expenses, the race has since helped several children fighting similar battles.

This year’s event will include a 5-kilometer timed race, as well as 2.5-kilometer and 0.7-kilometer fun runs. Cost is $25 for the timed race, $15 for the 2.5-kilometer fun run and $10 for the 0.7-kilometer fun run. There will be booths, refreshments and prizes, including awards for the top three finishers in the 5-kilometer race and medals from Healthy Futures for all elementary school runners.

For more information, visit maddysrunak.com.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274

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