CLAYMONT — A prescription pill bottle sat on a table, along with a glass of water, in a driveway in the Ashbourne Hills neighborhood in Claymont. There, on a chilly Saturday afternoon, 15-year-old Mateo Ahumada began a new chapter in his life.
In front of family, friends and neighbors on Jan. 9, Ahumada held up a chemotherapy pill, put in in his mouth and took a sip of water. Then he rang a bell. His cancer treatment was over.
Before this, Ahumada stood in his front yard behind a sign that read, “Goodbye, chemo” while wearing a hoodie with “Straight Outta Chemo” on the front. He waved as dozens of cars drove by, horns honking and signs dangling out windows. The drive-by parade was led by several New Castle County police SUVs, and two Wilmington Police Department vehicles wrapped it up. The display brought Ahumada’s mother, Carmen, to the brink of tears.
“It’s just overwhelming, all the love we have received. And that makes a huge difference because you know they’re always there with you. You just keep going. And I think that’s what it did for Mateo,” she said.
Ahumada was also moved by the show of support. “It was great seeing all my friends and the cops. I know that the cops don’t know me, but it was still nice to have all of them there saying hi.”
His oldest sister, Elzy, appreciated the turnout.
“It was surprising, but at the same time, not. Mateo is a very loved kid,” she said.
Ahumada was in seventh-grade at St. Anthony of Padua School in Wilmington three years ago when he received the diagnosis that would lead to this moment. He had been experiencing a rapid heartbeat, frequent nosebleeds and fatigue.
“One night, I was at karate practice,” he said. “I don’t know what happened, and my chest started hurting really bad. My parents, they were worried, so they took me to the ER, and that’s when they did blood, and they finally found out that I had leukemia.”
Throughout his battle with cancer — T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia — Ahumada was surrounded by many of the people who would stop by his house on Jan. 12. One of those was Chris White, whose mother, Judy, is the principal at St. Anthony’s. White, 21, had been Ahumada’s church partner at the school. He is also a survivor of childhood cancer, having beaten Ewing’s sarcoma.
White and Ahumada, who is now a sophomore at Salesianum School, were in contact throughout the three years of treatment. He said he was there, like everyone else, to offer support, but from a unique perspective.
“Sometimes it was pretty similar to everyone else, but at least you could know, like, that I’d done it, too. To be that person who had done it,” he said.
Both White and Ahumada had the same nurse at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, Blake Vai. She was on hand to celebrate the occasion and even opened the pill bottle for the last dose of medication.
Vai said has seen many moments like this during her 27 years of treating children with cancer. Her role, she said, is not only to take care of the patient, but to support the families.
“It’s not just the child. It’s the whole process. And you become part of their family because they’re with us so much,” she said.
“This is good to see. This is what keeps me doing what I do, seeing things like this and seeing him be happy and healthy.”
Ahumada said his friends and teachers at both St. Anthony’s and Salesianum have been very supportive during his battle. They were constant visitors, and his teachers accommodated his needs. He received regular visits from neighbors, particularly John from across the street, and also from Joe McDonough, founder of the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, named after his son who died in 2007 after battling leukemia and a fungal infection.
“It was really great. I couldn’t ask for a better support system,” he said.
Carmen Ahumada spent Saturday greeting friends and neighbors, taking photographs and talking with family members who watched the celebration online. She was very grateful for everything that people had done for her family, which also includes her husband, Nanao, and daughter Tatiana.
There were many times when Mateo was so sick that she believed this day might never come.
“But we’re here, and we’re celebrating. It’s the greatest day,” Carmen Ahumada said. “We just need to stay positive that this is all behind us. We just need to live day by day and be thankful that we’re here now.”
Elzy, who is 17 years older than her brother, moved back to Delaware from Philadelphia when he got sick. She said the entire ordeal “was very, very difficult, but I feel like we’re a pretty strong family.”
“Definitely,” said Tatiana, who is nine years Mateo’s senior. “We handled it as best we could.”
Now that he’s done with chemotherapy, Ahumada is looking forward to getting back to doing all the things he loves without interruption, especially playing his guitar.
“I actually have a band with a couple of friends from school. Hopefully, that goes somewhere.”
All photos by Mike Lang.