An annual eye screening at school turned into a lot more for then eight-year-old Antonio Jake “A. J.” Azevedo. While in third grade at I. B. Perrine Elementary in Twin Falls, Idaho, A. J. and his fellow classmates received a Lions Club eye screening. After the test, the screener told him something was wrong and that a letter of explanation would be sent home.
Given A. J.’s strength of character, it didn’t come as a surprise when he made the decision to schedule his own eye appointment the next day, without waiting for the letter to arrive. As part of the exam, A. J.’s eyes were dilated. “It was tragic, I couldn’t see my phone,” he joked.
The optometrist told A. J. and his mom, Kim Lowe, that the nerves in his eye were elevated and he would need to see an eye specialist. They were given a recommendation of Dr. Kathy Lee, a pediatric ophthalmologist at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital. “I was a wreck,” A. J. said. “I thought I was going to have to wear glasses.”
However, the results would be much worse. A few days later, A. J. and his extended family all packed into a Tahoe and traveled from Twin Falls to Boise to meet with Dr. Lee. During the appointment, Dr. Lee discovered that the elevated nerves were the symptoms of an astrocytoma on his brain stem.
The following day, A. J. underwent a ventriculostomy, a neurosurgical procedure where a hole in the skull is created to allow drainage. A week later, he had surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible and then began weekly chemo.
According to Kim, everything weirdly fell into place after the diagnosis. A. J.’s Great Aunt Celia had moved back to Idaho a week prior to the diagnosis because “she had a sense she needed to be back in Boise.” With Celia in town, A. J. and his family had a place to stay while going through treatment. During the eighteen months of chemotherapy, “A. J. never once complained,” Kim said.
The chemo took a toll on A. J.’s young body, but he never lost his spirit. “I had my head in the toilet every weekend,” A. J. said, laughing. Whether eating his favorite sandwich, tuna salad a la St. Luke’s, or playing video games with the nurses, A. J. always found the best in any situation and was never discouraged. Even when feeling extremely ill, A. J. was always excited and happy about coming to St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital and Mountain States Tumor Institute (MSTI). A. J. and his mom credit the people at St. Luke’s for the wonderful care. “I couldn’t imagine better doctors,” Kim said.
A. J.’s courageous attitude and fighting spirit come from the love and support of his mom. “We’ve become very interdependent through it all,” said Kim. As the two talked about a recent trip to Hawaii, A. J. looked at his mom. “You know, the best part was just being with you.”
Throughout A. J.’s battle with cancer, Kim has been by his side every step of the way. For the St. Luke’s MSTI prom, Kim rented a Camry so they could ride in their very own “limo” from Twin Falls to Boise. St. Luke’s MSTI prom is for pediatric patients who have conquered or are still battling cancer. It is an inspiring event where patients, their loved ones, and caregivers celebrate life, complete with decorations, music, and dancing. A. J. was crowned MSTI Prom Prince that night.
Today, thanks to family, friends, and the St. Luke’s team, three successive MRIs have shown A. J.’s tumor to be stable for the past nine months. Now twelve years old, A. J. is thriving in school and starting to live life the way every child deserves. An intelligent and diligent worker who is wise beyond his years, A. J. has been chosen to direct his school’s TV Broadcasting class. This soon-to-be eighth grader is not only a fighter, he is a survivor.