Care for All

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Jaime Torres remembers feeling nauseous, tired, dizzy. It was hard to think. “Everything,” he said. His mother, Celeste Hinojosa, remembers just going blank when they learned why.

“You just focus on those words,” she said. “You know what? He has leukemia. And then my brain is like, OK, how am I going to start with the treatments, and how is he going to get better?”

In October, they will have been coming to the Vannie Cook Children’s Cancer and Hematology Clinic in McAllen for a year for Jaime’s treatment.

Jaime missed his sixth-grade year of school since he had to be homebound during the experience, a substitute teacher visiting him to help him keep up with his studies. He planned to return to campus for his seventh grade year.

“It seems like a dream come true to like miss school, but no — you miss it,” he said. “You miss your friends, you miss your classes. I missed a lot and I want to go back to it.”

However, both Jaime and his mother found a sense of community during the time they spent at the clinic.

“There’s some people you can relate to,” Jaime said. “Kids share their thoughts and struggles, and you relate to that.”

Hinojosa has found a community of like-minded parents at the clinic — along with the added convenience of its McAllen location.

“I like it because you get to socialize with parents and understand what you’re going through,” she said. “It’s made it a little easier for us because you get to communicate. We’re thankful we have the clinic because right now, we’re just 10 minutes away.”

“I’m so glad we didn’t have to go to Houston,” Jaime added. “Travel all the way over there just for some chemo? That would be tiring.”

And that’s just one of the many facets of the clinic for the Rio Grande Valley as a whole.

“I’m passionate about being able to helping here locally without having them have to relocate or separate families because part of the family has to go to Houston or San Antonio,” said Dr. Juan Carlos Bernini, Jaime’s primary doctor as well as a hematology oncologist and medical director of the clinic. “The treatment that they will receive here is exactly the same they would receive anywhere in the nation because we follow protocol. We follow specific treatment plans where the patients get exactly the same treatment, the most advanced chemotherapy.”

Bernini has been with the clinic since it opened in 2001 to fulfill a need that the Valley lacked.

“As the medical community grew in the Rio Grande Valley, there were lots of services for adults, but there weren’t those services for children,” said Victoria Guerra, director of development at the clinic. She recalled Bernini having to give children chemotherapy at their pediatricians’ offices. “The Vannie Cook Cancer Foundation and then Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital together formed the Vannie Cook Clinic. Since then, we’ve seen almost 10,000 patients.”

The clinic operates as an outpatient facility.

“We can do pretty much anything here,” Guerra said. “They will come for their blood draws, they come for chemotherapy, their doctors visits. We can do minor procedures in the clinic that don’t require full sedation of the patient.” The clinic is also accredited with the Children’s Oncology Group, so it also stays involved in research — both treating children and actively trying to find a cure.

If overnight stays are required, the clinic’s doctors have privileges at the local hospitals to continue to treat their patients. “Which is really important because you want the same doctor that’s seeing them here almost every day to be the one that, when they’re in a really scary situation, to be seeing them in the hospital, as well,” Guerra said.

And if travel is required for a complicated procedure, patients can seamlessly be admitted to the Texas Children’s Cancer Center — the facility already has their electronic medical records.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month — 30 days the clinic staff dedicates to going gold and making an extra push to be visible in the community.

“That is our month we get to celebrate and remember all the children who have gone through this journey,” Guerra said. “We have a carnival to kick off the month for all of our kiddos called a Celebration of Life Carnival. We have a fundraising event, we do walks, we try to get on as much media coverage as we can just to really show the community that cancer is happening all over the Rio Grande Valley to these kids.”

The clinic is a nonprofit organization, and relies on community donations to operate and treat its patients.

“We do have to raise over $2 million a year to stay in operation, so we can’t do it without the community’s help,” Guerra said. “We’ve been so blessed to be able to stay true to our mission because of our generous community.”

That’s why it’s so important for the clinic to continue to build support in the community — and raise funds.

“It’s extremely expensive to treat these kids. We absorb the costs,” Bernini said. “All the money they donate to us stays in the clinic. It doesn’t go anywhere else.”

Those costs are never transferred to the patients.

“We’ll never turn a patient away whether they can pay or not,” Bernini said.

In the end, awareness is key.

“I don’t want to scare anybody, but this can definitely happen to anyone,” Guerra said. “What we want people to know about Vannie Cook is that we’re here for you. We’re here in your community. You don’t have to leave.”

Learn more about the clinic at texaschildrens.org/VannieCook.