Diego Jimenez (left) and best friend Kenneth Corrales take a break during a shopping spree at Best Buy in Culver City last Saturday to play a video game. Jimenez, 12, who battled a rare form of blood cancer, was treated to the shopping spree by the Make A Wish Foundation. (photo by Ray Solano)

PICO NEIGHBORHOOD — Maria Solano will never forget the day she was told by doctors that her young son was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s lymphoma, a very aggressive blood cancer.

While the doctors said Diego Jimenez had a strong chance of survival, nothing seemed to comfort Solano.

“I felt like somebody just punched me in the stomach,” she said. “All I kept thinking was how is this possible. I immediately had thoughts of, ‘Is my son going to die?’”

That was in July of 2009.

Today Diego, now 12, has recovered thanks to treatment he received at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. The kid who once slept through a baseball game and complained of severe headaches is now playing with friends and enjoying life.

Over the weekend, the two were able to ride in a limo and go on a shopping spree courtesy of the Make A Wish Foundation, an experience that brought some joy to their lives and helped them forget, if just for a day, the struggles of the last year and a half.

“It was really fun to be in a limo,” said Diego, who brought along members of his family and his best friend. “I got a really funny shirt that I’m wearing right now. It says, ‘A Wookie ate my homework.’ You know, from “Star Wars.’”

Quiet, but inquisitive, Diego never seemed to show signs of fear during his treatment, his mother said. He doesn’t talk about the ordeal, saying he doesn’t remember much of it, but he does consider himself a survivor.

“I think he was more scared for me, more worried about how I was going to react,” Solano said. “When you don’t know anything about cancer, death is the first thing that comes to your head, but he was very calm and after we learned more, we saw that there were survivors, especially children. They are really resilient.”

During treatment, Diego would spend time at the hospital’s child care center where patients could watch movies, play video games and interact with others their age who are undergoing similar treatment. It was there that Solano was first introduced to the Make A Wish Foundation.

“I only thought that Make a Wish was for children who were dying, but they told me that it is for any child who has a life threatening illness,” Solano said.

Steven Vanderpool, a spokesman with the Los Angeles bureau of the foundation, said he hears that often. Thankfully, treatments have advanced so much since the foundation was created in 1980 that many of the kids who have a wish granted are still alive today and are thriving.

“We’re here to help people get through the often terrible things they have to go through to get well,” he said.

The foundation, which started in Phoenix when friends and family of a little boy named Chris Greicius got together to help him fulfill his wish of becoming a police officer for a day, has granted a quarter of a million wishes. The Los Angeles bureau recently passed 7,000 wishes, Vanderpool said. The foundation relies solely on donations to provide wishes.

On Saturday, March 5, the foundation will be hosting its largest fundraiser of the year, the Walk for Wishes, at the headquarters of toy maker Mattel in El Segundo, Calif. For more information, go to www.wishla.org/walk.

As for Diego, his wish was to go on a shopping spree with his family and purchase video games and clothes.

“It was really exciting,” he said.

Always the mother, Solano said she wanted Diego to buy only clothes, “but it’s his wish, not mine.”

Solano said her wish, which was for her son to fully recover, has been granted. Her only request now is for more Latinos to participate in the National Marrow Donor Program to see if they are a match for someone in need of their bone marrow.

The importance of the donor program was impressed upon Solano said Diego when they met a young boy who was in need of bone marrow. His parents were unable to find a match and he died. His memory has stuck with them.

“People in the Hispanic community are hesitant to join,” Solano said. “We learned that there is a shortage of Latinos who do participate and than makes it difficult to find a match. Signing up the registry is easy to do and makes it so kids like him have a chance.”

Future NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal is the spokesman for the “Do Something Big” campaign which urges people to join the registry and donate marrow. Learn more at www.bethematch.org.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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