The UCLA Men’s Basketball team continues to find success on the court as they battle through the NCAA Championship tournament. Before March Madness began, however, a few members of the team made time to virtually welcome their new Kid Captain, Pedro Lopez, an 8-year-old hero who has been fighting a battle of his own.
Pedro was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2018. Despite, the challenges Pedro has faced over the past three years, he didn't let it show on his Zoom visit with the team.
He laughed playfully as he sat next to his two younger brothers while waiting for Jaime Jaquez Jr., the Bruins shooting guard, to join the virtual chat.
"Pedro loves superheroes. Katie (Kolbeck), Pedro's Child Life Specialist, knew that. She told Pedro he was a superhero using a medicine called chemo to fight bad cells in his body," said Vilma Curiel, Pedro's mother.
Superheroes proved to be the conversation starter for Pedro when Jacquez Jr. joined the Zoom visit. “My favorite superhero is The Flash!” Pedro exclaimed after the Bruins star asked him who was at the top of the list.
After a few minutes of getting acquainted with Pedro, Jaquez Jr. led his new friend and his family on a virtual tour of the UCLA athletic facility. Once inside the gym, Pedro was introduced to Cody Riley and Kenneth Nwuba, both forwards on the Men's Basketball team.
Both were in the gym stretching and practicing as they chatted with Pedro.
"What's up, you all?" Riley asked Pedro and his brothers, who viewed with smiles over an iPad. "Thank you for coming by to see the facility we're blessed to work out in every day."
"Hey, guys! Maybe we can switch shirts when I see you," joked Nwuba, as he admired Pedro's UCLA shirt.
Nwuba even showcased his shooting skills as he dedicated a shot to Pedro and his brothers before making an all-net jumper that swished through the rim. Pedro and his brothers celebrated with cheers and laughter.
In different times, as Kid Captain, Pedro would have been able to visit the facility in person and attend a basketball game. Instead, due to COVID-19 restrictions, a cardboard image of Pedro was placed in the stands during UCLA's March 6 game against Arizona State.
The pandemic has made life tougher on Pedro and his family. COVID-19 has limited Pedro’s mobility – he only leaves the house for treatment, to limit potential exposure to the virus.
“It’s been a very tough and long journey,” said Curiel. "It's just different. Because of the pandemic, it's safer to stay home. Being that Pedro is still in treatment and having to worry that he’s at high risk with COVID is very stressful.
That has compounded the stress of Pedro’s diagnosis. “The whole year of 2018 was very hard for us because we didn’t know about leukemia,” Curiel said. “We didn’t know about the treatments. Everything was new to us.”
Curiel attributes the extraordinary care of UCLA Health's medical staff for why Pedro’s condition has improved. “Pedro’s doctor, Dr. William May, is great,” she said. “He's always answering my questions, and he's so good with Pedro."
Pedro has been undergoing treatment since his diagnosis at age 5. He and his Mom are counting the days until he’s finally done.
“He’s almost finished with treatment. He should be done by the end of May,” Curiel said. “That's very exciting for us all. Pedro's journey wasn't just tough on him, but it's been tough on us all, his two little brothers and me."
Pedro’s condition forced Curiel to become a stay-at-home parent, but seeing her son’s perseverance through it all, she says, has allowed her to stay positive.
“He's only 8 years old, and it surprises me how kids his age can be so strong after everything they've been through,” she said. “Pedro is playful and joyful, but there are days when he gets moody. Sometimes he just needs a hug.”
When asked if she wanted her son to be a Kid Captain for the UCLA Men's Basketball team, Curiel said she couldn't say no. it was something Pedro needed, and it made Curiel even more grateful she chose UCLA Health as his place of care.
"It was fun, and the guys were cool," said a smiling Pedro as he spoke shyly about his virtual experience.
“We’re glad we’re at UCLA,” said Curiel. “We could have gone to any other hospital, but we chose UCLA and we’ve had a really great experience with everybody. The doctors and nurses at both hospitals, Ronald Reagan and Santa Monica, were great. They treat us like family."
As Pedro continues to power toward the end of his treatment, Curiel sings praises for her son’s super team of Child Life Specialists that have helped him along the way.
“Pedro's had many visits to the hospital and sometimes had to stay many days. Thanks to Child Life, our stay wasn't boring, and Pedro didn't have a difficult time in the hospital even when he didn't feel good."