Raymond Melgarejo, 9, is your typical, rambunctious fourth-grade boy. A student at School of Our Lady in Santa Ana, “Ray-Ray,” as he’s known, plays video games, rides his bike around the neighborhood, and is a diehard football fan.
In fact, his uncle says, football probably saved his life.
More than a year ago, Raymond was preparing for his season with the Santa Ana Monarchs, a Pop Warner football team where he was “the smallest boy on the team,” according to his aunt. But what he lacked in size, he more than made up for in toughness.
“He used to push down kids bigger than him,” said Heidi Yanez, Raymond’s aunt. His love for the game extended to the Dallas Cowboys, where he followed the team and its quarterback, Dak Prescott, religiously.
While being fitted for his football helmet at the beginning of the season, Raymond complained about a lump on the back of his head. His uncle took him to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) where they were given a devastating diagnosis: Langerhans cell histiocytosis or LCH, a rare disease that is often treated with chemotherapy.
“He has always been a tough kid; he never complained about a lump or any symptoms,” said his uncle, Jose Melgarejo. “If it wasn’t for the helmet fitting, we wouldn’t have brought him to the ER.”
After a four-hour operation to remove the tumor and part of his skull, Raymond faced a year of chemotherapy, which prevented him from going to school for two months and, sadly for Raymond, kept him off the football field.
“That was the only time he had a reaction,” said Yanez. “When we told him he couldn’t play football, he was really sad. And he missed going to school.”
Throughout the 50 sessions of chemotherapy, Raymond wasn’t allowed to go to the theater or malls, where an infection could have serious consequences.
Students and faculty at School of Our Lady rallied around Raymond and his family. His teacher worked with him to ensure he kept up with his schoolwork, and friends and families sent him get-well cards, but mostly, “our school community came together and supported him through prayer,” said Principal Adela Solis. School of Our Lady is one of 34 schools in the Diocese of Orange that receives tuition assistance funds from the Orange Catholic Foundation, which grants $2.1million a year in tuition assistance, most of which comes from the Diocese’s Pastoral Services Appeal (PSA). These funds help families like Raymond’s send their children to Catholic schools.
Jose Melgarejo says their Catholic faith has played an integral part during Raymond’s treatment and recovery. When Raymond was unable to attend school during treatment, he insisted on joining his schoolmates at Mass every Thursday.
“We never questioned our faith because we know everything happens for a reason,” said Melgarejo. “Our faith was never really tested; since Day One it has always been what’s helped us get through it.”
Raymond’s journey wasn’t complete without a football fantasy. When CHOC and the Make-A-Wish Foundation heard that Raymond’s favorite team was the Dallas Cowboys, they arranged to fly Raymond and his family to Dallas to meet the team and Prescott, Raymond’s favorite player.
“At first, I didn’t believe it was him,” Raymond said about meeting Prescott, who tossed footballs with him. At the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium, Raymond signed an honorary one-day contract, took snaps from the center field and handed off the football to the Cowboys star running back—all of which was documented by ESPN.
“He’s a natural leader,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.
Chemotherapy treatment is over and Raymond is back at school with friends for a new year, where his favorite subject is science because “I like to dissect things,” he said.
But his doctors continue to monitor him every three months. His family remains optimistic, and LCH hasn’t dashed Raymond’s dreams of gridiron glory. “I know I’m going to be a Cowboy someday,” he said.