One In A Million: Coco's Story

By Jennifer LoConte

On August 24, 2009, Jim and Ali Lazaridis of Bethlehem welcomed their first child into the world, Khloe Coco,  a healthy and happy baby girl. At the age of three months, Coco developed a seemingly non-threatening fever. Upon further examination, their pediatrician noticed an enlarged spleen and immediately ordered multiple tests and blood work which confirmed the awful news: Coco was diagnosed with Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia (JMML), a serious pediatric cancer with an alarming 50% survival rate.  Extremely rare, JMML accounts for approximately one case per one million children, usually under the age of four, according to the JMML Foundation.  For the next year, Jim and Ali’s lives would be turned upside down as they watched their young daughter battle for her life against a disease that no parent wants to know about.

Coco’s treatment took place at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). She would require intense chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. Ali recalls, “At first it was difficult to accept Coco’s diagnosis. She seemed like a healthy baby – eating, playing and laughing.” Chemo wouldn’t begin for five weeks, while doctors monitored her and did endless blood tests. One afternoon during those weeks of waiting for treatment to begin, Ali recalls playing with her daughter, when Coco suddenly stared into her mother’s eyes as if to say, “Mom, I’m going to be okay.” It was at that touching moment that Ali decided she would start a foundation, not only to spread awareness about JMML, but to offer hope for other children also diagnosed.

The Coco Foundations’ mission statement is to help fund clinical research geared toward treatment, raise awareness about pediatric cancer and support children and their families who have been diagnosed with JMML. The foundation’s board of directors includes family members, friends and associates who remain dedicated to Coco and all those affected by pediatric cancer. Additionally, the foundation assists with the financial difficulties families go through during a child’s hospital stay and treatment. Ali says, “We are committed to financially helping families get through the rough spots. The financial burden parent’s face is enormous. Monthly household bills, insurance and mortgage payments are often neglected during a family crisis.”

The Coco Foundation holds numerous fundraising events throughout the year. Sporting events like golf tournaments and 5K races, blood and bone marrow drives, car washes, casino night and a variety of raffles take place throughout the Lehigh Valley. Board members serve an annual fundraising dinner at the Ronald McDonald house in Philadelphia, where Coco and Ali resided while Coco attended eating therapy classes after being released from the hospital. Tracey Snyder Saab, founder of Community Warriors, a Lehigh Valley-based organization geared at helping children and families in need says, “We are honored and proud to be a voice for The Coco Foundation, which defines Warriors in Action. They stop at nothing to help children and families battling pediatric cancer by creating opportunities to gain awareness, raise funds, and enable countless smiles.”

During Coco’s treatment, Ali and Jim split their time between living at the hospital and at home. Coco underwent several rounds of chemo until her immune system was completely suppressed. On March 26, 2010—after finding a match through an umbilical cord blood bank–she received a bone marrow transplant. Following the transplant, the family was forced to wait for the new cells to grow. For Coco and her family, it was a tumultuous time. Ali explained, “The chemo did a lot of damage to her body. Mouth sores, high fevers, infections, significant bleeding in addition to the normalcy of a young baby developing teeth were just some of the issues Coco faced.” Through it all, Ali was careful not to let Coco see her cry. She continues, “I cried alone in a bathroom or anywhere as long as it was not in her view. I needed to be strong so that she would be strong, too.” It seemed to work as Coco continued to fight until finally on the 14th day after her transplant, new cells began to multiply and grow. Another 30 days passed, and blood tests revealed 100% donor cells, which was good news. However, because of the intense chemo, multiple problems plagued Coco. Excessive bleeding continued, liver damage, jaundice, swelling and low blood pressure sent her into the ICU. Thankfully, her body began to heal itself and on July 14, 2010, (Ali and Jim’s wedding anniversary), they were able to bring their daughter home for good.

Today, Coco continues to be in remission and enjoys the normal and carefree life of a two-year old. Gymnastics, finger painting, visits to the park, playing with her dog Bella and sharing life with her four-month old brother, Nicholas fill her days while her favorite chocolate milkshakes and her grandmother’s Greek soup fill her tummy. Although monthly visits to CHOP for blood tests are necessary in order to monitor Coco’s health, it’s all worth it for the Lazaridis family. For information on JMML, how to become a donor, support the Foundation and find future fundraising events, visit thecocofoundation.org or email [email protected]

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