Because That’s What Heroes Do: 6-Year-Old Stevie Lerma Conquers Cancer with the Help of Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso and El Paso Children’s Hospital
Every superhero has an origin story with a battle that defines them. At the age of 4, Stevie Lerma was already fighting the battle of his life.
“He was too little to know what a headache was, but he was having a lot of them and vomiting – yelling when he vomited,” Stevie’s mom, Crystal Lerma, said. “That was a big concern for myself and his pediatrician.”
On Jan. 23, 2019, Stevie’s pediatrician ordered a CT scan that confirmed a cancerous brain tumor. Lisa Hartman, M.D., a pediatric oncologist with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso and El Paso Children’s Hospital, immediately became Stevie’s oncologist and removed the tumor two days after the diagnosis and less than a month from his fifth birthday.
A little over a year later, on Monday, March 9, Stevie rang the bell at El Paso Children’s Hospital marking the end of his treatment. He is now cancer-free, and celebrated his sixth birthday in February.
Stevie’s battle with cancer was a tough one that included five cycles of chemotherapy and a stem cell rescue, a method that replaces blood-forming stem cells destroyed during treatment. These stem cells allow bone marrow in the body to recover and help produce healthy blood cells.
Fortunately, Stevie did not have to travel out of town to receive most of his treatment. El Paso Children’s Hospital is a member of Children’s Oncology Group, the largest organization in the world dedicated to using the latest clinical and biological innovations for treating pediatric cancer.
El Paso Children’s Hospital is the only hospital in a 350-mile radius that meets the group’s eligibility requirements to participate in its program, giving El Paso and the surrounding region access to state-of-the-art cancer treatment.
Being a part of the Children’s Oncology Group gives Dr. Hartman and other oncologists at El Paso Children’s Hospital access to cancer clinical trials from all around the country.
“Patients in El Paso can enroll in clinical trials locally and get access to the same treatment without having to go out of town to get those new drugs or upfront treatment,” Dr. Hartman said. “Since all pediatric cancers are rare, the only way pediatric oncologists have been able to make so much progress is by networking.
“Even large centers like MD Anderson or St. Jude (Children’s Research Hospital), would not have enough patients to see a significant statistical difference on a clinical trial. We put the patients on the trial locally, and then together, as a consortium, we’re able to see differences in outcome, treatments and side effects.”
Dr. Hartman added that although patients receive treatment in El Paso, they can still have a “virtual second opinion” by calling or emailing a consortium physician who is an expert on a particular childhood cancer.
Brain tumors are the second most common form of childhood cancer after leukemia. Because children have developing brains, pediatric oncologists work to lessen treatment side effects that could affect children’s memory and development, Dr. Hartman said.
“Especially kids younger than 3; we don’t use radiation,” she said. “And we try to avoid radiation, even to the brain, on patients less than 6.”
A port was installed in Stevie’s chest that would deliver chemotherapy drugs into his body to fight the cancer. It had side effects, causing Stevie to lose all his hair, which made him self-conscious and sad at school.
Determined to counter those feelings, Stevie viewed his chest enhancement as a connection to a hero moviegoers have gotten to know over the last 11 years.
“He said, ‘I’m the real Iron Man because I have a port,’” his mother Crystal said, alluding to the arc reactor implanted in the fictional hero’s chest.
Adopting the heroic persona of the Marvel character allowed Stevie to cope with his cancer battle and keep from feeling depressed about his hair loss. But as his treatment wound down in early December 2019, it came time for doctors to remove Stevie’s chest port.
Would the confidence of Iron Man be lost?
“He said, ‘It’s okay. I have costumes. I could just wear a costume now,’” Crystal recalled.
Stevie understood his heroic confidence didn’t come from thinking he was Iron Man, but realizing he was his own hero.
Like the Iron Man in comics and films, Stevie had help from a team.
“I never doubted Dr. Hartman,” Crystal said. “Since the day I met her, I knew she was the one that was going to save my child’s life.”
This past December at TTUHSC El Paso’s annual Cookies, Cocoa and Holiday Cheer event, Stevie had the honor of turning on the campus holiday lights for the first time of the season. But before the big moment, he ran around, giggling, and kept an eye on the Grinch while hiding behind event-goers.
Iron Man had the day off, enjoying the festive scene, but if the Grinch stepped out of line, Iron Stevie was ready.
Check out our photo gallery featuring superhero Stevie Lerma!