With a grin, Mateo Cota — aka “The Beast” — took off down the drive near his family’s Arroyo Grande home on his John Deere toy Gator.
After a long moment, his dad, Eddie Cota, started running after him — a response that prompted Mateo, who turns 3 in October, to smile wider and hit the gas.
“He just takes everything on with so much energy and charisma,” Eddie Cota said. “He just doesn’t take no for an answer.”
It’s an attitude that earned Mateo his nickname, and also one that has helped him withstand a lengthy treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Mateo had been sick for about six months with various ailments including a periodic fever, stomach pains, an earache and other problems that prompted four visits to the Arroyo Grande Community Hospital emergency room, with no conclusion.
“I knew something was wrong, but I was doubting myself,” Erika Cota said. Finally, concerned about a sore on Mateo’s leg that wasn’t healing, as well as a recent headache he’d had, she took him to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, where he was finally diagnosed with cancer.
He’s been in remission since Oct. 21, 2013, but he’ll have to continue a treatment regime that includes oral chemotherapy, spinal chemotherapy every three months and periodic blood work for more than two years.
Eddie Cota and his wife, Erika, sat down Monday for an interview at their home to talk about Mateo, their youngest of three sons.
Or at least, they tried to sit down. Occasionally they’d pop up to respond to Mateo, such as when he grabbed a bottle of hand sanitizer and squirted it across the room. Eventually, we went outside so Mateo could run around.
“He just has the absolute best attitude about this,” Eddie Cota said of his son — though he could have been describing himself and his wife.
During what is undoubtedly a trying time, the Cotas have set up a Facebook group, Cancer Mommies of the Central Coast, for moms to find support during their child’s treatment (it’s a closed group with 22 members).
They’ve met or are in the process of setting up meetings with representatives from Sierra Vista and Dignity Health, which owns the Arroyo Grande hospital, to give feedback on their experience at both hospitals to help improve the process for future families.
This Saturday, the Cotas will speak at a bone marrow registry and blood drive hosted by GH Sports in San Luis Obispo. With any luck, Mateo will grab the microphone and say a few words, too (maybe, “I’m beast!” while flexing his muscles, like he did during a pause on the Gator).
Mateo has so much enthusiasm, it’s hard to believe his diagnosis happened just under a year ago, on Sept. 23, 2013.
But as Mateo plays, his parents point out that he’s stepping on his tiptoes, because the chemotherapy makes it painful to walk.
He was first treated at Cottage Children’s Hospital in Santa Barbara and then transferred to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Most of his treatment is now done at a satellite office of Children’s Hospital in Ventura and Coastal Integrative Cancer Center in San Luis Obispo.
The family’s upbeat attitude toward Mateo’s treatment shows as they talk about his port, a special intravenous line placed under his skin that allows him to receive medication or have blood samples taken.
The port is named Henry.
“Henry is with us for the next 2½ years,” Erika Cota said. “It’s easy to cry and be negative but Mateo gets excited. Henry is going to get food.”
“We put a positive spin on it,” Eddie Cota added.