In a living room in West Tampa, the only light comes from a candle flickering beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary. Teresa Pictoriano lights it every day, to keep her son alive. His name is Jesus. He is 4. A tumor has invaded his kidney and liver and wrapped itself around other organs, and it is so daunting that even his doctor, a pediatric surgeon, isn't sure what to do. Jesus knows little of all this. Ask him what he wants for Christmas and he speaks of a Spider-Man car. His family prays he will live that long.
He amazes his parents and three sisters sometimes with his bravery.
He extends his tiny finger for nurses to prick. And he hardly ever cries, not even when they draw blood.
At first, when his mother asked if his tumor hurt, he said no. It just tickled.
Now, it hurts.
• • •
It began with a bulge in his belly last November.
At first, the doctors said it was gas. But their medicines didn't work. Ultimately, an X-ray found the tumor in his kidneys, and a specialist described it to the parents. He called it a Wilms tumor.
In the summer, after chemotherapy and radiation, the bulge under Jesus' Spider-Man pajamas shrank. But when it came time for surgery, doctors realized the tumor had tangled itself around other organs.
"This tumor just had a mind of its own," said Dr. Charles Paidas, the University of South Florida's director of pediatric surgery. "It's just mutating. It's wrapped around all vital structures."
A little boy's liver. His intestines. His stomach.
Paidas got on the phone and contacted surgeons across the state. He said they all were humbled at the virulence of the monster inside Jesus' belly.
"We all try to push the limits," Paidas said. "There is an earthly limit to what you can do."
• • •
Even now, Dr. Paidas gets phone calls from doctors who want to ponder the tumor.
Meanwhile, LifePath Hospice helps Jesus to cope with the pain.
Earthly limits seem to have exhausted earthly options.
But Pictoriano lights her candle. And a family waits for Christmas, hoping it will come.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.