Meet Mateo: The Comeback Kid

Photo credit: Webb Chappell

“I think this was supposed to happen to me so I could find my true self and inspire other people.”

It’s a heavy statement coming from a 12-year-old, but Mateo isn’t your average kid. In 2016, when the Duxbury, Mass., resident was just 8 years old, he started losing weight, running fevers, and having trouble walking. He complained of stomach aches and shoulder pain. Doctors were unable to pinpoint the source. That November, following tryouts for his local basketball team, Mateo spent the evening vomiting and was rushed to the emergency room. There, his family was given the shocking news—Mateo had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, is the most common type of cancer in children. The fast-growing disease starts in the bone marrow. Mateo’s body was making abnormal white blood cells, which were weakening his immune system and causing the pain. The good news, the oncologists at Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund Clinic assured his family, was that with intensive chemotherapy, more than 90 percent of children are cured.

Mateo’s treatment plan was aggressive. It aimed to kill the cancer cells and get Mateo in complete remission in 30 days. If all went well, it would eliminate any trace of cancer, he could go home, and return to Dana-Farber periodically for outpatient treatment. There was no time to waste; chemo began immediately. Side effects were swift and severe. He endured hair loss, nausea, an itchy rash, vomiting, mouth sores, and a cocktail of medications to address each ailment.

Even as the intense treatment depleted his energy and made him sick, Mateo remained upbeat and resilient. After spending Thanksgiving in the hospital, his family was excited to bring him home for Christmas.

Mateo and his brother Theo at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

The celebration was short-lived. Mateo’s family was enjoying Christmas dinner when they received the devastating phone call. Mateo’s test results were in: There was still leukemia in his bone marrow, and he would need a stem cell transplant.

The situation became even more dire when it was discovered that neither Mateo’s parents nor his three siblings would be able to donate bone marrow. The protein markers in their cells were not a close enough match to Mateo’s; the risk of rejection was too great.

Unbeknownst to Mateo, several months earlier and many miles away, a young German woman named Laura was attending her boyfriend’s paintball game in Frankfurt when she wandered away in search of a snack. She stumbled upon a kiosk where a non-profit organization was recruiting potential bone marrow and stem cell donors. Laura provided a DNA swab from her cheek in exchange for a chocolate bar.

She forgot about the encounter until she received word that she had matched with a patient. Despite knowing nothing about the recipient, Laura didn’t hesitate, agreeing to undergo the procedure to extract her marrow. It was only afterwards that she learned there was an 8-year-old boy in the United States waiting eagerly for a second chance at life. She was his only match.

The lifesaving cargo was airlifted to America, landing at Logan International Airport during a blizzard, and rushed to the hospital, where Laura’s cells were promptly infused into Mateo. Despite brutal side effects following the infusion, Mateo remained positive and grateful. He did not yet know Laura’s identity, but carefully penned a note to her that read, “Dear Donor, thank you for giving me the bone marrow. You feel like you’re already part of my family.”

Frustration mounted as Mateo developed graft-versus-host disease from the transplant. The donated cells began attacking Mateo’s cells, causing rock-solid stiffness and tightened skin. Doctors had finally succeeded in managing his condition when the family received yet another blow in July 2020: The cancer was back. Mateo would need another stem cell transplant.

Second stem cell transplants are extremely rare. Using Laura’s cells again would be too risky. But this time, in 2020, the science had evolved. New drugs made it possible to use donor cells that were not as closely matched to the recipient. Laura’s donated bone marrow gave Mateo the extra time needed for scientific discovery to catch up. Mateo’s 14-year-old brother, Leo, didn’t think twice—Mateo was not only his brother, but also his best friend. He would donate his stem cells.

“It’s weird to think that Leo’s cells are in me,” Mateo said to the Boston Globe after the transplant. “I wouldn’t say it was a sacrifice. It was more like a gift, to save your brother’s life.”

Today, Mateo is cancer-free. He is in regular contact with Laura, his original stem cell donor, and hopes to visit her in Germany one day. He is still the athletic, funny kid he was before his diagnosis, but having conquered leukemia and two stem cell transplants, the comeback kid agrees that he is more mature than other kids his age.

A budding artist, three of Mateo’s drawings were featured on reusable bags sold at HomeGoods and HomeSense this summer, with proceeds supporting Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund. Each design was shaped by Mateo’s cancer journey. The elephant is Mateo, strong and sturdy. The bird represents his friend Jordan, a pediatric patient who passed away in 2017. The hearts represent each member of Mateo’s family. And the waterfall is the calm and peaceful energy we all need.