Mon Mon Chen (Guangzhou, China)
DSRCT Diagnosed 11/03 at age 15 - Passed Away 2/4/05
in Orange County, California
Mon Mon with her mother and father. Before diagnosis.
The Orange County Register
Teen takes steps away from death's door Author: GREG HARDESTY
A half-eaten Snickers bar on a desk. A Christina Aguilera DVD atop a stack of videos. Stuffed animals. Over the past three months, a hospital room in Orange has vividly come to life with the trappings of a teenage girl -- a transformation that has startled nurses and doctors who never expected her to live.
On Wednesday, in a constant stream of embraces, they all came to say goodbye to Mon Mon Chen, 15, whose recovery from an extremely rare and malignant cancer at UCI Medical Center has been hailed ``miraculous'' by her doctor.
The Chen family is from China but will not be going far. A family friend in Newport Beach is taking them in as they pursue a new life, despite huge financial obstacles. Mon Mon's discharge was a happy moment for her and her family and for staffers on the pediatrics ward who routinely deal in heartbreak. ``Today, she will leave with us from the hospital to enjoy springtime and again smell the flowers of life,'' Mon Mon's father, Ping Chen, 45, wrote in a thank-you note he painstakingly translated into English from his native Mandarin. ``What, are you trying to make us cry?'' nurse Wendi Watkins said as the Chens presented her and staff members with the note and a basket of goodies.
Mon Mon's recovery from desmoplastic small round-cell cancer, which has attacked only about 100 people worldwide, is as dramatic as her parents' efforts to save her. Ping Chen and his wife, Lailing, 42, once upper-middle-class entrepreneurs in the modern south China city of Guangzhou, sold their luggage manufacturing business and all their possessions after Mon Mon got sick in August. They spent everything trying to save their only child, but doctors in China were baffled by the rare cancer. They told the Chens their only hope was to seek treatment in the United States.
Borrowing money from relatives and relying on the kindness of a longtime American friend in Newport Beach, the Chens showed up in the emergency room of UCI Medical Center on Jan. 23. Mon Mon was near death. A tumor in her abdomen was the size of a football. Another had invaded the lining of her right lung, choking off oxygen. Her heart and kidneys were failing.
Now, after four rounds of chemotherapy, the tumor in Mon Mon's belly is gone, and the one surrounding her lung has been reduced by half, said Dr. Stanley Calderwood, a pediatric oncologist who is treating her. ``This is a pretty miraculous recovery,'' Calderwood said. He pegged Mon Mon's survival rate at 50 percent, from an initial assessment of about 30 percent.
Mon Mon has four more chemotherapy treatments scheduled over the next few months, so Calderwood isn't ready to say her cancer is in remission. ``She has a lot of hardships to overcome, and she may at some point require surgery,'' he said.
Through it all, Mon Mon's parents have been her constant companions. It wasn't always so. In China, the Chens buried themselves in their business, with Mon Mon spending as much time with the help as she did with them. Now, the three are much closer.
As Mon Mon's parents quietly packed up their belongings, she chatted away on the telephone with a well-wisher. She modeled a pair of new olive-green khakis, her mostly hairless scalp covered in a pink cap. The entire pediatrics ward seems to have had a hand in Mon Mon's recovery. Some nurses volunteered their translating skills, for example. One such translator, Jen-Yi Kuo, dropped by to say goodbye. ``Everybody loves her,'' Kuo said. Another nurse, Terri Lyn Donly, joked when Mon Mon said goodbye: ``You can't go yet. I haven't learned Chinese!''
The Chens have moved into the Upper Newport Bay-area home of Marcia McCluer, a single mother who learned about the Chen's plight from her neighbor, Helen Williams, who met the Chens in China several years ago. McCluer, who has a 15-year- old son, Anton, and a stepson, Matt, 25, said she didn't hesitate clearing out her master bedroom for the Chens, who during Mon Mon's hospital stay lived at the Ronald McDonald House in Orange.
``If I were in their shoes, I'd want them to do the same for me,'' said McCluer, 45, who owns a glass-manufacturing business. ``It's what we're supposed to do: Love your neighbor as yourself. It doesn't matter if your neighbor is from China.''
Mon Mon's monthly bill for medicine and doctor visits alone will be around $5,000. That's on top of a hospital bill that is nearly $1.4 million and climbing. Donations from the community total around $14,000. A Medi-Cal application to cover Mon Mon's future treatments is pending. The Chens are here on visitor visas, but Ping Chen hopes to get a job in the import-export business on an emergency visa granted for humanitarian purposes. He pledges to pay the hospital bills. McCluer hopes others will step forward to help.
``When it comes down to it, this is what life is all about: being there to help each other and not worrying about how many oceanfront homes or Mercedes-Benzes we have,'' McCluer said. Neighbors Rich and Jill Kanzler have donated the use of an electric wheelchair.
Mon Mon is enrolled at Newport Harbor High School. She will be home-schooled for the rest of the school year. She will share the master bedroom and one bathroom with her parents. McCluer has moved into a guest room.
Ping Chen will continue to call his parents in China every night with updates. For now, the family plans to stay in Orange County. ``We like it here,'' Ping Chen said.
The Orange County Register
Saturday, January 29, 2005
At journey's end : A family from China is losing its once-hopeful quest to keep its cancer-stricken daughter alive.
www.dsrct.com desmoplastic small round cell tumor