Facing a fight for his very survival was not the way Derron Hernandez imagined he would spend his 13th birthday.
However, the Clifton Hunter High School student marked the milestone this month in the United States where he is receiving treatment for Ewing sarcoma cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland.
He said he’s grateful for life.
Derron, speaking with the Cayman Compass over the weekend via Zoom, said his experience fighting cancer has made him stronger than he ever thought he could be, and relying on his faith has helped him through.
“It was just from not having negativity, like, not thinking about the negative stuff and just thinking about the positive, looking forward. Just believing that God would get me through everything and looking forward to the future and not looking into what had happened or the past,” the teenager said.
It’s that positive outlook that has inspired his schoolmates and teachers at Clifton Hunter to host a special fundraiser and head shave next month in support of childhood cancer research and the Hernandez family.
Student Chad Powell Jr. is among those who have signed up to shave their heads on 2 Oct. in solidarity with Derron.
“We understand you don’t really have a say in it, so there’s no reason to feel upset about having the hair loss and other things that come with cancer, because me shaving my head, my hair’s going to grow back, but theirs most likely won’t for a very long while. So, it’s … stand with him in unison,” Powell said.
Cancer was an unexpected turn
Just over seven months ago, life for Derron and his family changed drastically. It all started when he woke up with a pain in his neck.
His mom Marla, speaking with the Compass, said in February Derron woke up complaining of pain and she believed it was caused by him sleeping badly and it would go away. The pain did go away, but it would return occasionally, until one day things went horribly wrong.
“The end of March, one morning he woke up and he wasn’t able to move one of his arms.
He came downstairs running and he said he couldn’t move it. So, I told him he probably slept on his arm, but then a day later, I was massaging his neck, and I felt, like, a ‘ball’ on his neck, so I told him I would take him to the doctor,” she said.
After that, she said, the pain went away and the movement came back. But on 6 April she took him to the doctor after he started feeling weak and, at that visit, Marla said the doctor told her it may be a muscle spasm and gave the teen some medication. However, he said if
Derron did not improve, he should return.
She said he started gradually losing strength and would sleep a lot.
By the morning of 9 April, Marla said, “He couldn’t move his two arms.”
“So, we took him to the hospital and when we got there, I told [the doctor] that the ‘ball’ on his neck was getting bigger. So, they sent him to do an MRI,” she said. At this stage, her son was barely able to walk.
She said the doctor called them in for a meeting and said Derron had something on his neck and he wasn’t sure what it was, but “it wasn’t good”.
They were told Derron needed immediate surgery, which is not usually performed in Cayman.
The mom of three said her head started to spin.
She said as the doctor explained that Derron had a tumour that was so big it was compressing his whole spinal cord, “there’s when I felt my world was ending”.
“He said normally [spinal cord bone], it’s the size of a 25 cents [coin] and the only thing they can see from his spinal cord in this section [where the mass was compressing the spine] was actually less than 1 cent size,” she said.
The mass had covered his neck bones and was compressing the spinal cord which caused his mobility issues. They removed the [part of the] mass to the back of the neck, but they had to treat the mass at the front with chemo and radiation because of the dangerous nature of the surgery.
She said being in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic did not help, as they were unable to leave Cayman. However, local doctors worked with her to get help at Johns Hopkins as Derron had continued to deteriorate and had become completely paralysed.
“The only thing he could do was talk,” his mother said, as her voice cracked slightly.
She said staff at the Cayman Islands Hospital managed to secure a doctor at the US hospital to perform the surgery and helped get a humanitarian visa for the family to travel to the US by air ambulance.
Three of Derron’s neck bones were removed as they had been infected with the cancer, and were replaced with plastic and cement. He was fitted with an implant in his chest for feeding and two small pieces of his bone marrow were removed for testing, which came back cancer-free.
Marla said the hospital ran a number of tests and only found cancer in his neck. Doctors began aggressive chemotherapy, which the teenager is still undergoing. He was also wheelchair-bound for several months.
“After three months, that’s when he started walking more on his own. He said to me, ‘Mom, I’m never going to use that wheelchair again. I’m going to walk and I’m not going to use it again.’ So he stopped using the wheelchair and he started walking around,” she said.
Marla said she is in awe of her son’s determination and resilience.
A community comes together
Derron’s tutor and physical education teacher Ricardo Hayles, who is behind the fundraising efforts at Clifton Hunter, said he was filled with compassion when he heard about Derron’s situation and wanted to help.
“The feeling was very sad. I place myself, firstly, in the parents’ shoes and what they’re going through is nothing easy. Many persons who are diagnosed sometimes don’t recover and it would have been very heartfelt if we lost Derron. So I’m very happy that he’s now recovering,” Hayles said.
Clifton Hunter deputy principal Steven Clark said when Hayles came to him with the idea to raise funds, he was pleased to get students involved to help and to raise awareness of cancer.
The school has collected more than $3,250 in donations; the aim is to hit $5,000 by 2 Oct.
The Lions Club of Grand Cayman, government offices and the school’s PTA have all joined in the effort.
“I’m extremely proud of the students and of the staff at the school in the way they support each other and deal with difficult situations… It’s another way of us all coming together within the Clifton Hunter community for one really, really important purpose,” Clark said.
Anyone interested in assisting the Hernandez family can call Marla directly at 925-7209.