Family

Where are they now?: Mike Myers, Pope Francis help Hilton Head boy overcome cancer

ABOUT THIS SERIES

This week, The Island Packet is updating readers on the most interesting people -- and animals -- introduced during the past year.

In our fifth installment we catch up with young Alex Arrieta, a Hilton Head boy diagnosed with cancer

WHEN WE INTRODUCED THEM: Feb. 16, 2015

WHERE WE LEFT THE STORY: Alex Arrieta, 9, of Hilton Head Island was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer.

WHAT'S CHANGED: Alex's cancer is in remission after six months of agonizing treatment. He's also experienced many exciting adventures along the way.

Caroline and Brandon Arrieta couldn't believe what they were hearing.

The Hilton Head Island couple had taken their 9-year-old son, Alex, to the doctor Feb. 6. He had been having headaches.

At first, they were told he was dehydrated. But Caroline knew that wasn't it, and demanded a blood test.

When the results came back, the doctor's tone was much different. The Arrietas were told to take Alex immediately to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.

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He had acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer typically found in men over 55.

His brain was swelling because his red blood cells had been depleted. His white blood cells were also drastically reduced, leaving his body unable to fend off infection.

Had the illness gone untreated, he could have died within weeks.

But what started as a months-long nightmare, has turned into a dream for Alex and his family.

Not only has his cancer gone into remission, but he has had the experiences of a lifetime -- receiving mail from all over the world, an autographed jersey from his favorite soccer team and birthday presents from movie star Mike Myers. He also completed a travel wish list and got to see the pope.

Just this week, he learned that the Make A Wish Foundation had granted his request. The organization will send Alex and his family on a trip to the Galapagos Islands in March.

His parents call his recovery a miracle and attribute it to the many prayers said on his behalf and the outpouring of well-wishers.

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"He got postcards from all over the world," Caroline said. His hospital room was filled with gifts and mail.

For months, Alex endured torturous rounds of chemotherapy and heavy medication. Most cancers require a few hours of chemo at a time spread out over weeks, but Alex's doses were continuous for 10 days at a time.

He had four rounds in all and, with the exception of a few weeks, was hospitalized from Feb. 6 to mid-July.

After the third round of chemo, the cancer went into remission, but he still had to undergo one more session. And it would be the worst.

"For almost the entire month of June, he was barely moving," Brandon said.

But Alex, despite the agony, often stayed true to his nickname "Smiles."

One of his more memorable moments was receiving birthday gifts from Myers, the star of his favorite movies, the "Austin Powers" series.

His father had tracked down the actor's public relations office but wasn't optimistic Myers would get the request.

But on the day before his 10th birthday, the presents arrived -- an autographed photo of Myers in a Dr. Evil pose and stuffed animals of Dr. Evil and his cat.

Alex, his head bald because of the chemo, performed his imitation of Dr. Evil in a video sent to Myers. Pinkie raised to the side of his mouth, he said in his best evil voice, "I owe you one million thanks."

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One of Brandon's favorite of the many special moments during Alex's ordeal was the trip to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia on Sept. 26.

Thousands had lined up, waiting for a glimpse of the pontiff. But as the crowd hemmed the family in, Alex began getting dizzy and nauseated.

His father gained permission from Secret Service agents for the family to sit to the side. The waiting, however, became intolerable for Alex, and Brandon decided the family would just go watch the event on the Jumbotron.

But as he was going to tell the agents he no longer needed a spot in line, he heard a woman call out, "He's here!"

Francis had made a surprise entrance to bless the crowd. Brandon hoisted Alex on his shoulders. The pope was only 10 feet away.

"It was just incredible," Brandon said.

Alex has been home from the hospital since mid-July. He returned to school, and he played soccer this fall.

His cancer is in remission, but he still has some health issues.

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One of the medications enlarged his heart. And he must go to the doctor each month for blood tests to make sure he remains cancer-free.

But his parents are in awe of his recovery, which has been much better than doctors had expected.

They say they no longer sweat the small stuff after the life and death struggle they have witnessed their son endure. It has brought their family closer together.

"There were some horrendous, scary moments," Brandon said. "But as horrible as it was, it was also beautiful."

They also hope to help other families faced with childhood cancer and advance cancer research, Brandon said. Through his restaurant, Hugo's Seafood & Steakhouse, he plans to organize a macaroni-and-cheese contest as a fundraiser April 2 at Oscar Frazier Park in Bluffton.

For now, Caroline says, the family is basking in the joy of having Alex home and can't wait for the holidays.

"We're looking forward to a fabulous Christmas."

Follow city editor Don McLoud at twitter.com/IPBG_Don.

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