Photo courtesy of Yadhira Huerta
On June 21, 2001, The Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children’s Cancer and Hematology Clinic in McAllen, Texas, first opened its doors to patients and their families in the Rio Grande Valley. Since then, our clinic has provided care to more than 10,500 patients and recorded more than 94,000 patient visits. We are so incredibly proud to serve this great community and help improve the lives of children and their families affected by cancer and blood disorders. I look forward to celebrating this incredible milestone all year with my staff, our donors, volunteers and the entire Rio Grande Valley community!
When I became medical director of the Vannie Cook Clinic, I anticipated we would see approximately 100 patients during our first year of operation. Instead, we saw more than 400 patients! It was obvious how essential our presence was – and still is – to our community. Before we arrived, this region did not have facilities for the treatment of pediatric cancers, nor did it have pediatric hematologists/oncologists. In fact, most of the local children with cancer and blood disorders had to travel hundreds of miles to Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Houston or elsewhere for treatment. This long-distance travel caused physical, emotional and financial hardship for these children and their families. Now, thanks to The Vannie Cook Clinic, children can receive care locally without ever having to leave the Rio Grande Valley.
Each day when I see patients receiving care at our clinic, it reminds me of the meticulous planning, hard work and strong partnerships that have made it possible to bring our services to this region. The Vannie Cook Clinic was created through a joint effort of The Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation, Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers and Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. David Poplack, associate director of the Cancer and Hematology Centers and director of Global HOPE, and the late Dr. Ken Landrum, longtime Chairman of The Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation Board and Baylor College of Medicine graduate, helped us pave the way for this partnership between the three entities. Over the years, these partnerships have bolstered the clinic’s programs and access to the best comprehensive services and innovative therapies.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it’s one of the most devastating moments in any parent’s life. A million questions come to mind, along with sadness and fear of the unknown. Families want to know their child is receiving the most advanced therapies and are being cared for by the best experts in the field. Staffed by physicians from Texas Children’s and Baylor College of Medicine, our clinic is the only comprehensive pediatric cancer and hematology center in South Texas. Over the years, the clinic has grown from a small group of providers into a top-notch team of physicians, nurses, social workers, clinic technicians and administrative supporters, all committed to delivering the newest and most advanced therapies to our young patients.
In addition to providing diagnostic and treatment services, we provide a Long Term Survivor Program, which follows childhood cancer survivors through adulthood. Additionally, we have a robust research program that offers patient participation in various epidemiology studies and clinical trials. As a member of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), we are able to provide children in the Rio Grande Valley with access to state-of-the-art clinical trials. This is particularly important since a large portion of the population that we treat is Hispanic, a population that is generally under-represented in clinical trials.
For 10 years, Yadhira Huerta, one of our social workers, spent days, nights and weekends helping patients and their families get the resources they need to fight cancer. But it wasn’t until recently that she understood exactly what families go through after a child’s cancer diagnosis.
One afternoon in December 2020, Yadhira’s then 13-year-old son, Diego, began complaining of chest pains following a series of tough workouts. His parents initially assumed the pain was from lifting weights until he began having trouble breathing.
“My husband and I decided to take him to the doctor to rule out COVID and during that appointment is when a suspicion of cancer arose,” Yadhira said. “The suspicion was strong enough for the physician to refer Diego to the Vannie Cook Clinic. Dr. Rodrigo Erana, an oncologist, whom I work with every day, discovered a mass in Diego’s chest and a spike in his white blood cell count. When they told us Diego had T-Cell Leukemia, the room started spinning. For 17 years, I have worked as an oncology social worker and nothing – absolutely nothing – can prepare you to be the parent of a child with cancer.”
Any parent who has been through these circumstances, understands the initial sadness followed by shock, but Yadhira says gratitude soon followed as her co-workers overwhelmed her with love and support.
“When you’ve worked here as long as I have, your co-workers are like family,” Yadhira said. “All of a sudden, I felt incredible gratitude for this clinic and the fact that high-quality care is so close to home. I’ve always believed in Vannie Cook and its mission, but overnight I believed in an entirely different way.”
Yadhira and her husband, Ricardo, Diego and his siblings plan to stay close through the three-year journey. Yadhira still works full-time in our clinic, and tells me she feels so fortunate to continue serving the mission as we celebrate our 20th anniversary milestone this month.
“My son’s diagnosis has informed and empowered my work,” Yadhira said. “I’ve always given the best advice possible, but now with a new level of empathy and energy. I’m both optimistic and realistic, which forces me to take my son’s journey one day at a time. The truth is I never thought I’d be in the position, but cancer can happen to anyone. And if it does, the mission of a clinic like ours is heaven sent. My hope is that support for Vannie Cook remains strong for another 20 years and beyond.”
We have so much to be grateful for as we celebrate our 20 years of service. As we focus on the future, we will continue to forge exciting paths for long-term survivorship with our patients every day. Our leaders and our partners with the Vannie Cook Clinic will continue to evaluate the services provided at the clinic and we will continually strive to deliver the best care possible to our patients in the Rio Grande Valley.