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Leukemia fighter swaps hospital for home

Young Peruvian exchange student returns to his country with help from local Rotary clubs
by: Jaime Valdez, Rony Montalvan and his father flew home to Peru Wednesday morning after months of treatment for leukemia.

Rony Montalvan boarded a plane Wednesday morning with a to-do list he was forced to put off for nine months.

After an unexpected extended stay in the United States, the teenager was more than ready to return to his life in Toquepala, Peru.

'I'm looking forward to going to college and getting my driver's license,' Rony said. 'I can't wait to see my whole family again, get together with my friends and go on with my life.'

The 18-year-old was diagnosed in June with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, six days before he was scheduled to return home to Peru after completing a year as a Beaverton Rotary exchange student at Beaverton High School.

The past nine months have been a trial for Rony as he has undergone an aggressive treatment regimen to get his leukemia under control and into remission.

'His treatment has been a series of difficult situations, but all of that has been left in the past,' said Ronald Montalvan, Rony's father. 'We are facing a new phase of his treatment.'

Rony's pediatric oncologists at Legacy Emanuel Children's Hospital in Portland recently gave Rony and his family the news they had been praying for: With his leukemia in remission, he's ready to go home.

Much to the delight of his father, who celebrated his birthday Wednesday, Rony and Ronald boarded a plane at 6 a.m. to Peru.

They took with them a couple years' worth of medication to continue Rony's maintenance therapy and a detailed set of instructions to monitor his health.

They were scheduled to return home Sunday, but an infection last week temporarily delayed Rony's departure from the United States.

'He's going to be fine,' said Dr. Judeth McGann, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist with the Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Program. 'This happens all the time, but we don't want to put fuel on the fire.

'He could get on a plane, but with his immune system and white blood cell counts being down, it's a risk. The circulated air in the airplane doesn't help. I want to see what his counts do in the next couple days.'

She told his father last Thursday that it could take anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks for the infection to run its course.

In the meantime, doctors kept a close eye on his counts while Rony's extensive network of supporters anxiously waited for the green light that would allow him to move on to the next chapter of his life.

He turned the page Wednesday, beginning a new journey on his road to a healthy life after saying goodbye to a community of new friends.

Throughout Rony's extended stay in Beaverton with host families and in the Ronald McDonald House, Beaverton Rotarians have embraced Rony and the members of his close-knit family who have taken turns to be at his side during his care.

In addition to agreeing to sponsor Rony for a second year to allow him to continue his medical treatment, the Beaverton Rotary has worked to raise money to cover mounting medical costs while also planning fun outings to help lift Rony's spirits.

From hosting dinners to planning snowboarding trips, Rotarians have worked hard to make Rony's unplanned, extended stay memorable.

'I'm very grateful for everything they have done,' Rony said. 'I didn't expect to have so much help.

'I'm going to miss my host families, my two Rotary clubs and my friends here. I've met so many nice people. They have treated me well and made me feel like I was part of the family and important to them.'

Rony's father agreed.

'The people here have been very kind and have helped us so much,' Ronald said. 'Because of their support, I gained the strength to face this situation with more hope.

'They acted so fast in the beginning when Rony first showed signs of being sick and that saved my son's life. In my mind, what they have done does not have a price. I don't know how I can give back and repay them for what they have done. The only thing I can think of is doing the same thing for other people, like a chain of favors.'

As the Montalvan family waited for the intensive chemotherapy treatment to overcome Rony's leukemia, Rony's parents and siblings took comfort in knowing that their loved one was in good hands.

'This is a good hospital with good doctors,' Ronald said. 'I'm sure they have given their best and treated my son the right way to get his total cure.

'It will still take a long time to finish the treatment in Peru, but we are so thankful.'

The Montalvan family will be forever grateful for the tireless effort, dedication and support of Dr. Janice Olson and the team at Emanuel.

'The people in this hospital are like a family,' Ronald said. 'The nurses and doctors come in with love to check on him.

'They are always smiling, and that is important for parents and the patients. It doesn't feel like it's a hospital. It's a home.'