Her mother describes 14-year-old Andrea Serna as a straight-A student and social butterfly who loves to swim and plays trumpet in the high school marching band. Eleven years ago, her prospects were less than promising.
Named the 2019 Fulton County Relay for Life Junior Honorary Chair, Andrea fought leukemia during early years when most children begin to blossom. Katie Serna remembers that time as frightening, uncertain, and filled with prayer for her daughter.
“I just had to rely on my faith that somehow or another it would work out,” she said. “I didn’t see it as the end. I knew in my heart she had more of a future to come.”
The Delta resident said the family lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, in November of 2008 when she noticed bruises on four-year-old Andrea’s leg, arm, and back. The bruises were still there at Christmas, and began to cause concern.
Over the new year, purple patches called petechiae appeared up and down Andrea’s arm, and she was taken for a medical checkup just before she was to start preschool. Although Andrea’s throat didn’t hurt, the doctor assured Serna her daughter’s condition was caused by strep throat, and prescribed amoxicillin.
It was after Andrea vomited a couple of times at school that the nurse there contacted Serna. The nurse had noticed that Andrea was pale, her heart was racing, her respiration was rapid, and she had a fever.
“She knew it was something bigger than just strep throat,” Serna said. Although she argued that Andrea had just visited the doctor, the nurse insisted the girl needed another checkup.
This time, the family physician did blood work. “By the time we left, they said, ‘Here’s your paperwork. Go right to the hospital – they have a room waiting for you,” Serna recalled. By that evening, Andrea was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a type of blood cancer.
Serna contacted Andrea’s father, Roberto, who was enlisted in the Navy and stationed in Japan. He was reassigned to the base in Corpus Christi for the length of Andrea’s illness.
Her parents were upfront about her diagnosis. “She was devastated. She didn’t know exactly what cancer was but she knew it was bad. She was in tears,” Serna said.
The girl was removed from preschool and set up for a 2 1/2-year treatment of chemotherapy. During that period, her older brother, Antonio, sometimes spent days at friends’ houses to accommodate the family’s hectic work and medical appointment schedules.
Through 2009, Andrea was hospitalized about a dozen times for complications. “If she got the slightest little bit of a cold, it was the hospital for her,” Serna said.
Andrea’s biggest setback, however, was unexpected. Often confined to bed, she told her mother she wanted to be a normal child who could go outside and do things. To appease her, she was given permission by doctors in June of 2009 to attend a local baseball game.
Later, Andrea’s temperature spiked to 104 degrees. A lung biopsy revealed that during the outing she had contracted swine flu.
It was also during the biopsy procedure that Andrea’s lungs collapsed. She spent three weeks in a medically induced coma in an intensive care unit, attached to five IVs and with a port in her chest. She was released from the hospital in September.
Chemotherapy that was halted during the hospital stay was reintroduced. Unable to attend the start of kindergarten, Andrea was temporarily home-schooled. Over 2010, she was hospitalized several times.
“She was very weak all the time,” Serna said. “I’m a Christian woman, so I was doing a lot of praying.”
On May 5, 2011, Andrea was declared cancer-free at seven years old. “I was totally overjoyed. Finally, we were at the end of the chapter of the book,” her mother said.
And while she must now be examined annually, Andrea’s checkups have remained clear. Each May 5 is now celebrated with a party.
Unfortunately, she didn’t come through the illnesses unscathed. The swine flu left her asthmatic, and an infection resulted in the tip of a finger being removed.
But Andrea refused to let her experience keep her down. She said her mother’s upbeat attitude kept her spirits buoyed and prevented fear from taking over.
“My mom was always there for me. Just having that positive aspect in my life was good,” she said.
Andrea said that, in fact, through the worst of her ordeal “there was kind of this little voice that said, ‘You’re going to be fine. You’re going to live.’” She was later told by the youth pastor at her church, “God only gives the hardest battles to the strongest soldiers because they can handle it.”
Soon to turn 15, Andrea feels proud to donate her hair once annually for wigs for cancer patients. “It really makes me happy to see people wearing wigs of my hair. I feel like it’s the one thing I can give back,” she said.
Sharon Morr, co-chair of Fulton County Relay for Life, said Andrea was chosen Junior Honorary Chair for her willingness to share her story. “I’m sure reliving it is never easy,” she said.
Andrea also stood out due to her happy ending, Morr said. “It’s hard to see a child with cancer. You just don’t think that’s going to happen to a kid. And when it does, sometimes (the outcome) doesn’t turn out as good as hers.”
Her doctors have inspired Andrea to become a pediatric oncologist. “I know what it’s like to go through cancer, and I know it sucks. But my doctors were the best people I could have asked for,” she said.
And while at one time she professed to hate cancer, she now looks at her illness differently. She said it gave her a lifelong outlook she can cherish.
“It builds you and shapes you into the person you’re supposed to be,” Andrea said. “I live life to the fullest, because you never know what day is going to be your last. You gotta just breathe, because it’s just a bad day, not a bad life.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.