In Apryl Padilla’s bedroom, dozens of Hello Kitty plush dolls take up the length of one wall, all the way from floor to ceiling.
That’s one doll for each visit Apryl, 6, has made to the hospital.
Apryl was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer when she was 2. After years of surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, her mom, Barbara Padilla, said she made the hardest decision she ever had to do: halting her daughter’s painful and seemingly futile treatment so she can enjoy whatever time she has left.
“She’s my everything. I want to enjoy her,” said Padilla, 29. “That was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life, and the scariest thing I could ever think of.”
A frequent visitor of Miami Children’s Hospital, Apryl and her mom have a favorite spot: the hospital fish tank. Watching the fish makes Apryl happy, and her mom wanted to find a way to bring that happiness back home.
Silvia Dominguez Vanni, co-founder and executive director of Mystic Force Foundation, had become friends with the Padilla family through the “family fun night” events she hosts every month at the hospital. Vanni called up the Animal Planet TV show Tanked to ask for a fish tank.
Brett Raymer, chief operating officer of Acrylic Tank Manufacturing, the company featured in the show, called Vanni and agreed to design a special Hello Kitty-themed fish tank through a local partner company, Reef Top Aquariums.
The tank was delivered to Apryl’s home near Jackson Memorial Hospital on Tuesday morning. It now sits in her living room, with little clownfish and other sea critters inside. She sleeps on the couch next to the tank, and she doesn’t want to let it out of her sight.
“She kisses the fish. She says they are her friends,” Barbara Padilla said. “If I would have had to get it myself, it would have been out of a pet shop. Silvia made it so special for my daughter that I am eternally grateful.”
Padilla said doctors always told her that Apryl’s type of brain tumor, a medulloblastoma, is fast-growing and aggressive and that Apryl will not live past age 18. Despite the bleak prognosis, Padilla did not want to give up on her daughter.
To fight her aggressive disease, doctors treated her with radical measures.
Apryl has had four tumors surgically removed, one of which popped a vein and caused her to begin having seizures. She had three bone marrow transplants. The amount of radiation she received was as much as doctors say a person should receive in a lifetime.
Apryl has also been in chemotherapy for four and a half years, which has caused harm also: She has lost some vision and hearing, her speech is impaired, she has stunted growth and suffered a chemo-induced stroke. Apryl can’t control her bladder and wears a catheter and only eats through a feeding tube. In all this time, she has never improved or been in remission.
Things changed for Barbara Padilla when Apryl ended up in the hospital in early October. She finally decided that the chemotherapy was hurting her daughter more than it was helping.
“The doctors kept finding more and more things wrong with her,” she said. “I don’t want to be selfish and put her body through more things. It’s not fair to her.”
Padilla said it is so hard to let go of Apryl, especially because she lost another daughter just a year before Apryl was born. Aalya Lee Padilla died at four months old from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Padilla never thought she would have to say goodbye to a second child.
“I feel like every parent has to take care of their kids, and some have it harder than others,” she said. “But it does kill me sometimes — it hurts.”
Barbara Padilla and her husband, Johnny Lee Padilla, have helped provide medical care for both Apryl and their 9-year-old son, Angel, who was born with spina bifida and other health complications, with the help of some foundations, Social Security checks and working odd jobs here and there. Taking care of their kids has become their full-time jobs.
Apryl’s father also brought in a daughter from a previous relationship to the family. Jennifer Marquez, 7, has been living with the Padilla family for about six months now.
Outside the hospital, Apryl plays dress-up around the house, wearing a superhero cap with a red star over her Hello Kitty pajamas. Although she can’t eat, she loves lollipops and waves them around like magic wands.
Padilla plans on enjoying her daughter and spoiling her as much as possible: with a trip to Disney to get a princess makeover and taking her to the beach for the first time since she was first diagnosed.
“Without God, I wouldn’t be this strong,” Padilla said. “I’ve seen so many kids pass away, and my daughter is still here with me.”