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Claudia Blanco was 7 years old and had never seen snow.
It was almost Christmas, 1994, and her family’s bags were packed for a trip to Pinetop, Arizona. Claudita — little Claudia, as the family called her — was the youngest of five and her mother’s namesake. She was tense with excitement, ready to trade the Alamo trees and balmy weather of her home in Culiacán, near the western coast of Mexico, for Ponderosa pines and a wintery wonderland high in the White Mountains.
But Claudita’s grandmother noticed something about the little girl. She ate as much as the big kids but seemed emaciated. Claudita tumbled in gymnastics and pliéd in ballet, yet her skin was noticeably pale.
At school, Claudita had fallen playing hide and seek under some construction materials. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be there, but it was too tempting a hiding spot. The cut on her chin needed stitches, but the one on her knee wasn’t as deep. Yet somehow, the cut kept bleeding.
Dr. Eduardo Altamirano
Claudita’s aunt, a pediatrician, insisted Claudita be taken for bloodwork. If she was anemic, high altitude could be dangerous.
Claudita’s doctor found she was anemic and had a high white blood cell count — a sign there might be a problem with her bone marrow. She also had purplish spots on her neck.
Claudita needed a pediatric oncologist, but this was 1994, and there weren’t many in Mexico. The Blancos found one named Dr. Eduardo Altamirano.
Claudia, Claudita’s mother, noticed how rundown the hospital looked. Doctors were skilled, but all she saw in the makeshift ward were dark stairwells and dirty sheets.
If the family stayed in Culiacán, there was no guarantee the hospital would provide chemotherapy. And the Blancos might’ve had to find — and buy — everything from IVs to cotton balls to support her treatment.
Claudita had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. They weren’t staying.
When Dr. Altamirano arrived in Culiacán in 1988 to set up a pediatric oncology unit, there was no chemotherapy, antibiotics or equipment — not even a blood bank. Practically nothing to treat children with cancer in any comprehensive way. Even pediatricians there believed children with cancer would simply die. Change had been slow, despite his best efforts.
When Dr. Altamirano was a pediatric resident, he’d seen Dr. Donald Pinkel, the first director and CEO at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the United States, speak at a conference. It …….