Against all odds: Recent A.L. Brown graduate grapples with brain tumor

Published 12:10 am Saturday, July 1, 2023

KANNAPOLIS — Despite receiving a life-altering brain-tumor diagnosis, one A.L. Brown graduate did not let that stop him from living his senior year to the fullest.

Leonardo Perez-Martinez doesn’t want the high-grade glioma tumor doctors found inside his head two years ago to define him. He dreams of becoming a designer, enjoys playing video games and wants to attend business school someday. He’s a member of the National Technical Honor Society. Unfortunately, the severity of the tumor progression forced him to make some sacrifices.

“It was pretty tough on me,” Perez-Martinez said. “I had to stop going to school and go to treatments.”

After the school received word of Perez-Martinez’s diagnosis, Victoria Giraldo, a front-office staffer at A.L. Brown, said they told him he could start coming to class three days a week.

“He said ‘no,’ that he would be there every day,” Giraldo said. “Leonardo has inspired me. Whenever I have aches and pains, I think well, Leonardo is going to be there. I need to be there, too.”

According to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, a high-grade glioma is a type of tumor formed in the brain or spinal cord (central nervous system or CNS) through the abnormal growth of glial cells. Glial cells surround, protect and help with the functions of neurons, which are the cells that help send messages from your brain to the rest of your body.

Since his diagnosis, Perez-Martinez has undergone numerous surgeries and therapy treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation.

Following a February surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, he started radiation to shrink what was left of the tumor. Another scan in April revealed two more spots, so the doctors started him on more potent chemotherapy.

“During that chemo, they told Antonio that it might have a reaction on his skin and that he would lose some eyesight, (or experience) heart palpitations and memory loss,” Giraldo said.

Perez-Martinez’s mother, Antonia Martinez, added, “The only thing we realized, his nails were darker. God has been good.”

The good news was short-lived. In June, the doctors told them the tumor had grown 2.2 millimeters when they hoped it would shrink. It wasn’t the first time that he had received bad news.

“I started worrying about my family and how they would react,” Perez-Martinez said. “There are times when I am worried and anxious about it, but I don’t want it to devolve my life.”

Up against the odds, Perez-Martinez still graduated.

“When he was first diagnosed, we thought he might not make it to graduation,” said Dr. Ute Lentz, Perez-Martinez’s engineering teacher. “He came to school because that was the part he could control. A routine is important.”

Lentz shared that Perez-Martinez was a model student.

“He never was misbehaving,” Lentz said. “He focuses. He concentrates on the work and is a good problem solver. Engineering has a lot to do with design, and he was really good at it.”

Perez-Martinez did more than walk at his graduation last month.

“He finished in the top 10 percent of all seniors,” Giraldo said.

After the summer, Perez-Martinez plans to start classes at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

Knowing that her son is suffering is unbearable for his mother.

“I wish I could trade places with him, “Martinez said. “I feel my son has such a bright future. I have faith that we will find a trial and that he will heal and he will be able to fill his dreams and have that career that he wants.

“I have asked and pleaded to God to find a way that there will be a medication that would cure him.”

There were a lot of studies and clinical trials for children with Perez-Martinez’s condition, but he has aged out now that he is 18.

While his options are limited in North Carolina, some doctors said they would look for different clinical trials in another state. The family is optimistic about a possible treatment available in New York.

Even with the positive prospect, challenges still confront the family.

“My goal is if they find something, I want to be able to go with him,” Martinez said. “Going to a different state, I would have to lose my job. If I am traveling, I could not continue with my job.”

Giraldo added, “I wish money would not be an obstacle. If they do tell them that there is a trial and this would work, that money would not be an issue. Leonardo has fought very hard, and money should not be the obstacle.”

Through it all, the family has been faithful.

After his mother contacted their congregation at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Perez-Martinez was the subject of many prayers.

“A group of ladies from the church came to the house to pray with Leonardo,” Giraldo said. “I remember Leonardo holding on to the rosary and was so focused on repeating what the ladies were saying. Faith has kept this family together.”

When she needs a little extra strength, Martinez holds her son’s hand.

“He is so strong,” Martinez said. “I hold on to his hand so I don’t collapse. He is my strength.”

For now, the family will wait for confirmation of the treatment options in New York, trusting that God will answer their prayers.