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Epilogue | Amaya Nicole Martinez

Brain tumor steals a life that was just beginning

TAMPA — Amaya Martinez adored butterflies. They splash color on the world, the way she splashed it on her canvases.

She loved coquinas, too, wriggling in her cupped hands when she went to the beach. Amaya enjoyed all things girlish: wearing nail polish, dressing up as a princess with her friends or playing mermaids in the pool.

She liked the water slides at Aquatica and sleepovers and the Disney Channel. She could draw and paint and watch The Suite Life of Zack & Cody at pretty much the same time.

At 7 years old, Amaya's world seemed to be just beginning. But last month she fell ill for the first time in her life. She died Oct. 4 at St. Joseph's Hospital, where doctors found a massive brain tumor.

"She was healthy, happy and energetic," said family friend Melissa Casillas, 44. "It just happened overnight."

People said Amaya would become a fashion designer one day. She drew women in purple evening gowns. Her friend Kayla, Casillas' daughter, critiqued them. "She would draw a person in a dress or something, and I would tell her what grade she got," said Kayla, 8.

Sometimes Amaya fought with her older brother, Asier. But it was just kid stuff, over in a few minutes.

About two weeks ago, Amaya came down with headaches, fever, nausea and a sore throat. It seemed like a virus. Her parents, Juan Carlos and Nicole Martinez, kept Amaya home from school at Essrig Elementary, where she was in the second grade.

But by Oct. 3, she had worsened. She was pale and said her head hurt, said family friend Tania Wagner, a nurse.

Her parents checked Amaya into St. Joseph's at about 11 that night. Overnight, a doctor delivered the news, Wagner recalled.

"A massive brain tumor, is what he said, that had hemorrhaged. It was so big that it was putting pressure onto the brain stem. As it got bigger and bigger, every time that the doctor went in to do an assessment on her she deteriorated more and more."

Surgery was not an option because of the location of the tumor.

"At 7:30 a.m. Sunday they said, 'We think she's already gone,' " said Wagner, 35.

Further tests showed no brain activity. Amaya was pronounced dead at 2:45 p.m. Oct. 4.

Brain tumors often remain hidden until symptoms similar to Amaya's appear, said Dr. Amy Smith of the University of Florida College of Medicine, a neuro-oncologist and childhood brain tumor specialist. By then it can be too late, because the tumor has either bled or caused bleeding by putting pressure on surrounding tissues.

"A rapid decline is not uncommon," Dr. Smith said.

Two hundred Floridians under 16 are diagnosed with brain tumors every year, Dr. Smith said, making them the second most prevalent form of pediatric cancer (behind leukemia) and the leading cause of cancer deaths.

At Trinity Memorial Gardens Friday in New Port Richey, a boom box next to a small white casket played a Miley Cyrus song, Butterfly Fly Away. Then Wagner presented three children, including Amaya's brother Asier, with a basket of butterflies.

They removed the lid, and orange-winged butterflies flew out of the cage.

One stayed behind.

When Asier, 10, tried to shoo it away, the butterfly lit on his hand.

It remained there 30 seconds or so, long enough for the boy to turn to others and let out a giggle.

Then it, too, flew away.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Two hundred is the number of Florida children under 16 who are diagnosed with brain tumors each year, not the number who die. An Epilogue Sunday incorrectly quoted University of Florida oncologist Dr. Amy Smith.


Amaya Nicole Martinez

Born: Jan. 18, 2002.

Died: Oct. 4, 2009.

Survivors: Mother, Nicole; father, Juan Carlos; brother, Asier; four grandparents; two great-grandmothers; and several aunts, uncles and cousins.

Brain tumor steals a life that was just beginning 10/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 2:10pm]
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