Displaced mother grieves daughter’s death of liver cancer

Holding her baby girl in her arms, Vanessa Garcia whispers soothing words in Spanish into her ear at St. Mary’s Medical Center.

Vanessa was having a really hard morning.

“She has a lot of pain,” explained her mother, Madelin Garcia. The West Palm Beach mother had spent the morning sunk into a wheelchair in an exam room at St. Mary’s Medical Center, as her tiny daughter writhed in her arms, screaming in agony.

All that her mother could do was whisper soothing words in Spanish into her ear to try to convince her that everything is going to be all right. Sadly, that was not to be.

Vanessa, diagnosed in January with a rare and very aggressive liver cancer called hepatoblastoma, died Monday, Nov. 21, just three days after her fourth birthday.

Her brief life now seems a blur of hospitalizations, scans, medical treatments and more pain than any young child should be asked to endure.

Vanessa rests in her mother's arms at the hospital.

Vanessa rests in her mother’s arms at the hospital.

Before last winter, Vanessa, the youngest of the three children of Madelin, 37, and husband Dennys Garcia, 36, was an outgoing, healthy little girl who loved Minnie Mouse and being with her brothers. Up to then, “she did everything. (At) a year and a half old, she didn’t use diapers anymore,” her mother says. “She was independent. She would say ‘Mommy, I want to help you.’”

But then her mother noticed that her face was discolored and the doctors discovered that “she has something,” Madelin recalled. On Jan. 14, they found that this “something” was hepatoblastoma.

Devastated, the family scrambled to adjust. Madelin, a certified nursing assistant, began to take Vanessa to her numerous hospital visits, including aggressive chemotherapy, at least twice a week. Dennys, a self-employed handyman, had to take less work so that he could care for sons Jonathan, 14, and Joshua, 6.

“Now I have only one patient, the most important one of my life,” Madelin said days before her daughter’s death.

While they helped Vanessa fight for her life, the Garcias faced a crisis that could have affected the health of their whole family, when black mold was discovered in their mobile home, forcing them to move in with a relative.

Because the family’s already modest income had been depleted between Vanessa’s treatment and her parents’ limited work opportunities, they found themselves in extreme financial need to cover medical, living and transportation expenses for Vanessa’s treatments. Now they have funeral expenses and days of grieving.

The Thanksgiving miracle of their prayers did not come about, but that doesn’t mean the prayers stopped. There are 125 other local families living the same nightmare, says Barbara Abernathy, executive director of the Pediatric Oncology Support Team at St. Mary’s Medical Center, which cares for cancer-stricken children.

The team’s emotional support helped Madelin Garcia and her family press ahead. As Garcia cradled her daughter just days before the girl’s death, she wept: “I feel my heart is breaking. My sons need me. My family needs me. I need to stay strong.”

Abernathy tried her best to assure her: “You are so strong.”


Madelin and Dennys Garcia lost their daughter, Vanessa, to a rare and aggressive liver cancer on Monday, Nov. 21, just three days after her fourth birthday. The parents, who had been scrambling to meet the mounting financial and emotional burden of Vanessa’s many treatments and hospitalizations, must now cover funeral expenses for their beloved daughter. The Garcias, who have two other children, have been living with relatives since dangerous black mold was discovered in their mobile home. They had been praying for a miracle, their prayers echoed by 125 other local families of children currently treated by the Pediatric Oncology Support Team at St. Mary’s Medical Center. A donation designated for the Garcia family also will benefit the families of other cancer-stricken children.

Photography by Greg Lovett/Staff

Nominated by Pediatric Oncology Support Team at St. Mary’s Medical Center

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