During an exclusive interview with Laron and Santonia Johnson on June 24th; they shared their extraordinary experience with Jamal Cummins of Gigaré Lifestyle Magazine concerning their daughter Zaria “Pook” Johnson. Zaria lost her battle to cancer in January 2012 and they wanted to let everyone know their story and promote the importance of cancer awareness.
Jamal- Please tell me a little bit about yourselves.
Santonia- I don’t know where to start…….Babe you want to go first?
Laron- I was born in Miami, Florida but my home is in South Carolina. I joined the Army in 2002 and met my wife while stationed in Germany in 2003. I met you there as well Sergeant Cummins…Oh, I can’t call you Sergeant Cummins anymore. Santonia and I got married August 5th 2004 and later that year I deployed to Iraq. I have served two tours in Iraq, the first one was from 2004 to 2005 and the second one was from 2008-2009. I enjoy gardening and cooking as well as sports.
Jamal- I noticed that you have a garden – based on pictures from your facebook page. I must say that you guys are inspiring me to start one.
Santonia- That’s all his job ha-ha, I go out there once in awhile but I mostly take pictures of the garden. Now a little bit about me. I was born in Alabama and I joined the Army in June 2002. Germany was my first duty station and I also deployed while stationed there from 2004 to 2005. I got married to my husband in August of 2004. Once I left Germany we went to Ft. Hood and it was there where our daughter was born on December 15 2007. I enjoy reading, shopping and listening to music.
Jamal- Okay, not a problem……Now Laron, how long have you been in the Army now?
Laron- October of this year will be 10 years.
Jamal- Wow, and Santonia, how long have you served in the Army?
Santonia- I just hit my ten years on June 19th
Jamal- Okay, great………Now tell me about your daughter.
Laron- You want to go first babe or do you want me to go?
Santonia-I’ll go first on this one, I was a bit nervous earlier. Her name is Zaria but we call her “Pook”. She was a really outgoing little girl with a loving spirit and she always wanted to be the life of the party and make somebody laugh. I’ll go back to you now babe.
Laron- Like she said, you know she was a very strong willed little girl and smart. She understood a lot of things that a normal three year old wouldn’t understand. She always looked at the bright side of things and was very, very helpful. Let me give you a quick example, when we would bring the groceries in the house, she would be quite upset if we didn’t give her a bag to take in the house.
Laron- Yea, she would. She actually enjoyed gardening. That was the thing that me and her did. She sang on the choir and went to Sunday school. She was truly an angel. Her presence was very strong for her to be so young. You knew when she walked in the room. That’s pretty much it but she was just a loving kid who had a normal life just like any other kid with the exception of being stricken with cancer. She never let that stop her from doing things that she wanted to do.
Jamal- Wow…..Now when did you find out that your daughter had cancer?
Laron- Well……..The first time was late 2009?
Santonia- Well, they didn’t consider it cancer then
Jamal- Okay, so what did they consider it?
Laron- Yea, they didn’t consider it cancer at first. They misdiagnosed her at first. What they called babe? I don’t remember.
Santonia- It all started off with the liver transplant. We came back from training in June 2010 and she had been throwing up over the weekend. We were doing everything we could do as parents like giving her pedialite and medication but on Sunday night we finally decided that we should take her to the hospital. The nurse at the hospital said “I’m not worried about her temperature or her throwing up but I am worried about her belly” because her belly was a little bit extended. But we as parents just thought she had a pot belly.
Jamal- As I parent, I understand.
Santonia- When they finally did the CAT SCAN, that’s when they discovered the tumor on her liver. They then rushed her to a children’s hospital in Austin, TX to do a biopsy. There she was diagnosed with hemangiotheliolma. The doctors said it was non-cancerous at that time.
Laron- Yea, they originally said that it was non cancerous tumor so they us that she had to go ahead and start chemo so they could shrink the tumor.
Santonia- They had to treat it like it was cancer.
Laron- So she did Chemo therapy for about three months. So she had gone through therapy for about three months but the tumor had actually grown during this time and it was to the point where she needed a liver transplant immediately. So they referred us to Christian Santa Rosa hospital in downtown San Antonio. When we got there, the doctors immediately put her on the list for donors. She was number four on the list at first but then she went to number two in the region which covers Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma. After that she went back home to Ft. Hood but fluid began to build up on her arms, legs and everywhere. So at that point, she started to have a lot of pain to where she couldn’t sleep at night so we decided to take her to Scott and White hospital in Temple, TX where they said that her condition is getting really bad. They immediately airlifted her and Santonia back to Christian Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. There is where things started to go downhill for her, like very fast.
Santonia- At that time, they told us that she couldn’t leave until she had her liver transplant because the tumor had grown so much. Actually, the tumor had grown to be 25 pounds.
Santonia- It was at this time we asked the doctors what are the requirements to donate because a lot of people think that it’s just blood type to donate the organs but its more than that. You have to meet the person’s body mass. I couldn’t donate because I had a different blood type. My husband, although he had a universal blood type, could not donate because of his body mass. So at that time it was heart-breaking to us because a lot of family members couldn’t donate. Fortunately a friend of mine who was stationed with me at Ft. Hood asked me if I thought about contacting the local news about our story. I told her that it was a great idea. So I emailed the local news and told them my story. I told them this is what’s going on and this is what we need. She only needed a partial liver transplant because there was a small portion of her liver that was still working. After our story hit the news, we received many calls from people who were willing to donate part of their liver to Pook. My mother-in-law, who is a Sergeant Major in the Army, also sent out an email to the local military bases on her area. This all happened within a span of three days.
Laron- She actually received two livers from donors but she wasn’t able to take them because she was too sick. We had to refuse the first donor because the tumor was starting to crush her internal organs. They weren’t getting any air or blood supply so they had to actually cut her stomach open and leave it that way in order for her organs to get air. The second donor we also had to refuse because it was too small for her so we had to refuse it as well. The third liver donor came through when they found a match. His name is Trevor Burch who is in the Air Force. He told us how he went home and didn’t even ask his wife but told her that he was going to donate part of his liver to Zaria. On 31 October 2010, which is Zaria’s grandfather’s (my father) birthday, who she has never met, was the day she received the transplant. My father was murdered in 1998 so the only grandfather she knew was my step dad Frederick. After the transplant, they removed the tumor and showed us the tumor which like we said earlier was 25 pounds. She had a few complications with one in particular where they had to remove a blood clot but she recovered well overall. From the end of October to a week before the New Year, she walked out of the hospital and came home. By then we had already received approval to be compassionately assigned in the San Antonio area. Although we were in the process of moving, were very elated that our daughter was coming home. It was almost like she had never left. She came home and went straight to her room and played with her toys.
Part two of this interview will be available in the next issue of Gigaré Lifestyle Magazine.