Like most children his age, he likes building with Legos, reading the Goosebumps book series and tackling fast rides at amusement parks. But unlike other kids, Matthew Alvarez had to miss almost an entire school year.
The 9-year-old has pre-B ALL (acute lymphocytic leukemia), the most common type of leukemia in children. Diagnosed in July 2010, Matthew has been undergoing chemotherapy, countless spinal taps and a never-ending regimen of strong antibiotics.
“There were no symptoms and no cure for this type of leukemia,” said Jose Alvarez, Matthew’s father.
An angel in their midst
The treatment side effects include nausea, vomiting and a very low energy level, sidelining Matthew for almost the entire school year.
“The only reason he passed third grade was because he had this amazing teacher who worked with him,” said Alvarez.
He was referring to Maxine Daniels-Broussard, “Matthew’s angel," as Alvarez likes to call her. Broussard, then a brand-new teacher at , made it a point to keep Matthew on track with his schoolwork.
“She basically home-schooled him,” said Alvarez. “She came after school, on weekends and whenever Matthew’s health would allow it.”
The unassuming Broussard attributes it all to “a job she just had to do” for a courageous and motivated boy who was so eager to learn.
“He was going through this big thing in his life and needed all the help and flexibility that he could get,” she said of her teaching experience.
Alvarez acknowledged, “Taking care of Matthew is really a team effort.”
At in Calabasas, the single dad asked to be demoted from assistant deli manager to general merchandise clerk for more flexibility in his schedule.
“They’re very good to me at the store,” said Alvarez, adding that he still tries to put in 24 hours a week to maintain his medical insurance coverage.
On the days that he has to work, members of his extended family pitch in and take care of Matthew. Alvarez’ mother had the bulk of babysitting duties until she passed away from cancer a few months ago.
“She was my rock from day one of Matthew’s diagnosis,” he said of his mom, who was also a single parent like him.
With her death, other good Samaritans have stepped forward to fill the void within the team. The Talbert Family Foundation is one them. The Calabasas-based non-profit group organizes the annual Calabasas Classic 5K and 10K runs to raise funds for children like Matthew.
“We set up individual funds for the families whose children have cancer and other catastrophic illnesses,” said Julie Talbert, executive director.
About 30 families will directly benefit from the race, which takes place on Nov. 13 and attracted more than 2,600 participants last year.
Alvarez will be toeing the 5K start line, along with the rest of Team Matthew, before he heads to work.
After having spent so much time in hospitals, Matthew once considered becoming a doctor, just like one of his uncles.
“He’s on top of his medicines and regimen,” said Alvarez, describing how Matthew has committed the leukemia drugs and their dosages to memory.
“He once told a nurse that she was about to use the wrong needle size on him,” he said, chuckling at the memory.
Smart and articulate, the fourth-grader seems to have a performing side too. He likes listening to 94.7 the Wave, during car rides from their Tarzana home to Kaiser Permanente in Woodland Hills, where he has been receiving treatment.
“I think he wants to be a singer too,” said Alvarez. “He can be anything he wants to be.”
For now, Alvarez just wants his son to be well and often turns to metaphors that Matthew can relate to in order to keep his spirits up. “I tell him that his body is like a Lego toy and he needs the blood and platelets for rebuilding,” he said.
A total optimist, Alvarez can also transition seamlessly from Legos to Star Wars to drive his point across to his son during this long period of treatment and remission.
Channeling Yoda, said Alvarez: "I tell him to use ‘the force’."