This time last year, Brenda Ruiz was enjoying the start of her high school senior year, playing sports, hanging out with friends and changing the color of her long hair.
“I would always paint it and dye it,” Ruiz said. “I used to have burgundy, black, blonde …”
Then on Nov. 19, Ruiz fell during a soccer game. “My knee started to get swollen, my knee and thigh were really big,” she said. “I didn’t really pay attention; I thought maybe it was because I sprinted.”
Days later, after her knee gave out and she fell down some stairs, Ruiz was taken to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
After a week of tests, Ruiz and her mother, father and little sister were given the bad news: she had osteosarcoma, a deadly form of bone cancer.
“We were really shocked,” Ruiz said. “I thought I was going to die.”
For the next nine months, Ruiz spent Mondays through Thursdays at the hospital getting chemotherapy treatment. She said the cancer-killing drugs made her tired and nauseous, and resulted in hair loss.
“That was really hard, because I really liked my hair,” she said.
When news of Ruiz’s diagnosis reached her classmates at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy they were stunned, said Elisa Romero, the charter school’s college and academic counselor.
“She has a ridiculous amount of friends,” Romero said. “When we told the senior girls that Brenda had cancer, every single one of those kids broke down crying.”
The studentspleaded with Romero to take them to the hospital, and after getting permission from school officials that’s what she did — four girls at a time packed into her silver Volkswagen Jetta.
Ruiz was excited to see her friends, as well as her counselor. In the months that followed, she pestered Romero for work she could do at the hospital, online, to keep up with her studies.
“Even in the middle of her chemo treatment, she was thinking ahead about what she needed to do and what classes she needed to recover,” Romero said.
But Ruiz lost too much school time and is now repeating her senior year.
Kelly Earls, a social work fellow at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, connected Ruiz with Kids Wish Network, an organization that grants wishes to children suffering from life-threatening conditions.
Though Ruiz first thought about asking for a computer, she came up with a better idea: a shopping spree.
“I really like shopping,” Ruiz said. “But my family doesn’t have that much money.”
A few weeks ago, her wish was granted when Ruiz, her mother and her 11-year-old sister Flor walked into the Serramonte Center in Daly City.
The center’s marquee welcomed Ruiz by name and a mall official presented her with gift baskets and gift cards totaling about $1,125, including a $350 card from JC Penney and a $200 card from the trendy clothing store A’Gaci. Other stores gave Ruiz gifts when she walked through their doors.
Ruiz said the experience was “amazing” and she ended up buying shoes, pants and other clothes, as well as some jewelry.
Earls chuckled when recalling how difficult it was to get a wig to match Ruiz’s once multi-hued hair.
Wigs for Kids, a nonprofit that provides hair pieces to kids who lose their hair due to medical reasons, asked for a photo so it could match the hair color, Earls said. “We had a stunning picture of her, but her hair was three or four different colors.”
In the end, they went with brown, her natural color. Now that her hair is growing back, Ruiz said she might just leave it that way.
Back at Phoenix Academy today with hopes of attending culinary school, Ruiz said she’s been told her cancer is in remission but there’s a chance it will return.
“Hopefully it doesn’t,” she said softly.
Palo Alto, California