GAINESVILLE — Sarah Hurtado tossed her black wig on the bed.
"Go ahead,'' she said, "you can feel it.''
She parted a new crop of fuzz to reveal a dent in her skull, a stark reminder of those awful days last January when surgeons flooded her brain with chemicals and labeled her cancer Stage 4.
Now she was back at the University of Florida Shands Cancer Center, chatting with nurses impressed by her personality and intellect as she described the substances pumping into a port in her chest. She comes twice a week these days, but the crisis is over — for now, at least. She ignores statistics.
"I've got a baby to raise.''
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This is a love story that began in a freshman geometry class at Hudson High School. Chris Hurtado liked Sarah Sommerfeld's best friend. Sarah liked Chris' best friend.
"So Chris and I started sharing tips,'' Sarah recalled. "Our friends eventually broke up, but we kept talking to each other.''
On their first date, they went bowling with friends. When the evening ended, Sarah went to kiss Chris on the lips. He flinched, she missed and kissed his cheek. "She ran off,'' Chris said. "We still joke about it.''
They shared a tragic coincidence. Chris' mother, Helen Harper, fought breast cancer in Queens, N.Y., for three years before dying at age 29. Chris was 5, his sister Michelle, 7. Their father, Julio, moved the family to Florida.
Sarah was 7 when her father, Lynn Sommerfeld, 41, died in a skydiving accident in Zephyrhills in November 1991.
"He was a wonderful father, and I have such clear memories of him,'' Sarah said. "He was like a big kid. He'd take out fake eyeballs in a restaurant or talk with his stomach — you know, stupid, funny stuff. He'd pick me up from school and take me to make crafts or read books at the library.''
Lynn and his wife, Mary Lou , owned a plant nursery in Spring Hill. "When he died,'' Mary Lou said last week, "I couldn't move. I was frozen with grief. But Sarah helped me get through it. She was so strong. She is so strong.''
By her senior year at Hudson High in 2002, she carried the highest grade point average in school. On the night she gave the valedictorian speech, she told a Times reporter she wanted to mention her dad, "but I thought, 'I'll start crying.' "
Sarah and Chris went off to the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She breezed to a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2006 and then waited tables at Red Lobster while Chris finished up his degree in social science and secondary education. They got married in June 2007 and moved to Gainesville so Sarah could work toward a master's degree and doctorate at the University of Florida. Chris took a job with Sweetbay supermarket. They bought a house. They planned a baby.
"Everything was going so well,'' she said, "it caused me to worry. It's a weird thing I have. If ever I'm too happy and everything is going fine, I wait for something to hit the fan.''
In late August 2009, as Sarah neared her master's and Chris excelled as a store manager, she marveled at how easy pregnancy had been for almost five months. "No morning sickness,'' she said. "Nothing.''
Then one morning she woke up with what she thought might be the flu — high fever, nausea, a hard cough. The H1N1 virus had been a scare, and Sarah had been vaccinated against the swine flu just before she got pregnant. Her doctor ordered chest X-rays, which revealed enlarged lymph nodes.
Chris thought about his mother, who had been Sarah's age when cancer struck.
"When Sarah first got sick, I felt the lymph nodes in her neck,'' he said. "Even before the biopsy, I kept pushing about that lymph node. When the results came back, Sarah said, 'I'm so sorry for doing this to you again.' It was a true reaction. I raised my voice and said, 'Are you kidding? You're not doing anything to me. This is not something you can control.' ''
Sarah was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, an especially aggressive large-cell cancer. Doctors wanted to start chemotherapy immediately and pressed Sarah for a decision. "All I wanted to know is will the chemo affect the baby,'' she said. "We researched every way possible and were assured the baby would be protected in the womb. Finally, my family said, 'You have to do this.' "
After two rounds of chemo, doctors performed a C-section on Sarah at Shands on Oct. 30, two months before the due date. Gavin Hurtado weighed 3 pounds, 14 ounces. Doctors pronounced him healthy and placed him in an incubator for development. The family's relief and joy was quickly tempered by news that Sarah's cancer had spread and she would need even more aggressive treatment and ultimately a bone marrow transplant if she were to survive.
Gavin finally came home on Dec. 9, three days after Sarah's 27th birthday. And by Christmas, the medical team gave Sarah great news: the cancer is in remission.
"It was wonderful, but as we have learned with cancer, good news doesn't always last,'' she said.
In January, Sarah started having incapacitating headaches. The cancer cells had spread to her central nervous system. Doctors drilled the port into her skull.
"I knew Stage 4 meant I would probably not make it,'' she said, "but I took an optimistic view. Even if only 1 percent makes it, there's no reason I can't be that one.''
About the same time, Sarah got a call from the bone marrow coordinator at the renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. They found a donor for Sarah, a perfect bone marrow match from a 37-year-old woman. The family drove to Houston and rented a condo. On March 3, doctors transplanted the healthy cells into Sarah. The anonymous donor sent Sarah a card with prayers.
"I just broke down crying,'' Sarah said. "It was such a selfless act, a gift of life.''
Now, it seemed, the big challenge would be the same that faces other transplant patients — staying clear of infections, balancing treatments for rejection issues. But survival seemed real. Mary Lou, Sarah's mom, brought Gavin to the hospital. "I hadn't held him in a month,'' Sarah said, "and he was so big.''
Finally, in June, they headed home. Chris had spent months away from work, but Sweetbay could not have been more understanding and he was eager to get back. Insurance covered the treatments.
Sarah figured the worst was over. Then, after only one week home, she found a lump in her breast. Back to Shands for chemo, and this time the treatments took a terrible toll. Her body temperature spiked to 106 degrees. Her skin turned red and peeled away. She was too sick to talk, too delirious to remember.
But once again, she fought back. The last chemo treatment was in August. Her body is full of bruises, her hair has yet to fully return, steroids have left her puffy and she has some other side effects that she dismisses as "minor.'' The big thing, she says, is there is no cancer and the fresh bone marrow is doing its job.
• • •
Sarah felt stronger last week after a batch of platelets. She drove west from Shands in a new lime green Saturn with a lone bumper sticker: GOT HOPE.
She walked into the living room where Gavin pushed toy trucks, laughed and squealed and hugged his mom and grandma. A healthy, happy 14-month-old boy.
"Every day I hold my son and know he's healthy, and I feel so incredibly blessed,'' Sarah said. "My goal is to grow old with him.''
You can reach Bill Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (727) 869-6250.