A smile crosses Eli Tepas Barba’s face as he recalls his first few days back to school this month.
“It feels like I never got diagnosed with leukemia,” he says with a grin.
The 10-year-old smirks as he talks about his first haircut since chemotherapy caused his hair to fall out last year.
And what does he think about trips to the barber?
“I still don’t like it,” he says playfully.
But all indications of playfullness fade from his eyes as he recounts three straight weeks in a BC Children’s Hospital bed after being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer in March of 2017.
“Kind of depressing… Sad,” Eli says about the experience. “It felt like you were stuck a cage. Stuck in one spot.
“I felt disappointed that I couldn’t leave to go back home,” he adds, his voice breaking and his eyes swelling with tears.
The soft-spoken boy has gone through more than any child should ever have to.
After being been diagnosed with a certain type of hypodiploid acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the family was told there are less than 10 children with the disease across Canada.
Treatment has been rough.
Eli lost his hair. He lost weight. He would throw up whatever food he managed to get down. He received several blood and platelet transfusions. He endured painful treatments, including a chemotherapy drug called Erwinia injected into his legs several dozen times, in efforts to fend off the leukemia.
“That was the worst,” Eli says about the chemo needles. “It hurt so much.”
The chemotherapy initially was done intravenously but Eli developed an allergic reaction, which led to the needles in his legs.
|Eli in hospital. (Submitted photo)
“Everything was swollen, it was hard to swallow, it was getting very itchy, it felt like everything was burning,” he says.
Today Eli is back home, and both his hair and weight have returned.
He’s more upbeat and deemed cancer-free, but must still take chemotherapy pills for about two years to hopefully keep the disease at bay.
Standing in the kitchen of his North Surrey home, Eli gazes over to his infant sister Avielle. He fears she, too, will be diagnosed with cancer.
“I hope she doesn’t get it,” he says. “It sucks.”
It’s not an unjustified concern.
Eli’s family has a history of cancer.
His uncle Hector was diagnosed with leukemia at age 11 about a decade ago, and his aunt Lyz passed away from melanoma in 2016.
The family is sharing their story in the hopes of encouraging others to donate blood, which they credit with extending Lyz’s life and helping to save Eli’s and Hector’s.
“I started donating blood because me going into the hospital and seeing all the kids, and how much blood they need, it made me realize,” says Eli’s father Alex Tepas.
“With my sister (Lyz) I saw it too but seeing kids hit me more. My little brother (Hector) also had so many bags he needed. I think it’s a way to give back.”
Tepas says he’s donated three times, and plans to continue on a regular basis.
“I think everybody looks for a purpose in life and I’ve always thought helping others is a way to change the community and where you live,” he adds. “Sometimes, doing it without knowing who you’re going to help, it feels good. I would encourage people to donate.”
Tepas says while some might be anxious to donate blood, he urges others to “think of how scared each of those kids are when they’re getting treatment.
“Suddenly one little needle poke for a blood donation seems simple.”
|Eli and dad Alex. Submitted photo
There is currently an “urgent call” for blood donors across Canada.
Canadian Blood Services (CBS) says need for blood is constant and helps cancer patients, as well as accident victims and people with blood disorders.
In March, CBS issued a call for donations to meet patients’ needs this spring. From April 11 to April 22, there are about 2,900 open appointments to fill in B.C. Nationally, there are more than 15,000.
Despite the high need, CBS reports that less than four per cent of eligible donors give blood annually.
Rick Prinzen, chief supply chain officer for CBS, says a late snowfall in B.C. this year “hampered our efforts to replenish the national blood supply to levels we need.”
“Many Canadians have stepped up to help patients by donating blood or asking someone to donate on their behalf and more are needed,” says Prinzen.
“Spring is a time for renewal and celebrating life. We hope people remember that developing a habit of including blood donation in your routine is one of the most direct ways you can help someone.”
(Ten-year-old Eli Tepas Barba in his North Surrey home with his sister Avielle and his dad Alex Tepas. Photo: Amy Reid)
Meantime, Eli’s family is still not sure why cancer has struck them repeatedly.
“A mutated gene they found in me, they think might be the cause of a variety of cancers and maybe that’s something my family carries,” says Tepas. “Eli, my sister, my brother. But they’re not 100 per cent sure yet, they want to do more studies. Even right now, they’re still researching our genetics.”
But he says he remains optimistic about his son’s outlook.
“Even though he is cancer-free, he has to do a three-year chemotherapy (program),” says Tepas.
“He takes (pills) pretty much every day of the week. But it’s small doses compared to what he used to have. It can still have side effects, and we don’t know how it’s going to be in the long run. If he stops, there’s a chance it might come back.”
“It’s just maintenance now,” Eli chimes in, as he hurries to get back to a game of Minecraft on his tablet, and other regular kid things.