It was the last diagnosis Rebecca and Alfredo Zamarripa expected to hear after taking their 10-month-old daughter, Jocelyn, to the hospital.
The Carpinteria parents noticed their baby daughter’s left eye hadn’t looked quite normal in the days before the visit, and Rebecca said she initially thought it was a lazy eye, at the worst — a cataract that could be removed with surgery.
But the prognosis came back much more grim.
A tumor had begun growing on baby Jocelyn’s retina, and she was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer that surfaces in only about 300 cases per year through the country.
“When they gave us the news, we were shocked,” Rebecca Zamarripa said. “Cancer had never crossed my mind.”
Doctors grade these cancers from A to E, with E being the worst situation, spreading to the brain. When Jocelyn’s tumor was discovered, it was rated a D, just a step above being inoperable.
The family found out the news on a Friday night, and doctors at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital saw her on Monday.
After a week of tests, Jocelyn finally went into surgery. She was operated on by Dr. Jonathan Kim, one of only four retinablastoma specialists in the country.
The surgery went well, and now Jocelyn is at home, playing with her brothers and adjusting to the clear insert that fills the empty eye socket and will hold her eye open until she can have a glass eye inserted.
Zamarripa admits that when she first found out about the diagnosis, “I was a mess.” But now, “[Jocelyn] is smiling so it’s hard for us not to smile.”
Talking about what the family has been through over the past two weeks has helped, she said, and Jocelyn is doing much better. She’s doing well with just one eye, though Zamarripa said she has been a bit drowsy with all the medications.
Since the surgery, Zamarripa says her two older stepsons, ages 10 and 13, have been especially attentive to Jocelyn, and even more protective of their baby sister. But with their younger boy, Jocelyn isn’t getting any special treatment.
“My 2-year-old still takes toys from her when they play,” Zamarripa said with a laugh. “He doesn’t notice anything different.”
The family doesn’t have health insurance, and though they were able to get the surgery and the MRI covered by an emergency state program, they’re still facing $20,000 in bills, including the cost it will take to get a glass eye made for Jocelyn.
As she grows, she’ll need to be refitted for new prosthetic eyes, and the family will be going back to Los Angeles in a month to check in with her doctor.
For now, she’s cancer free, though there’s a 10 percent chance it could return in the other eye, Zamarripa said. Over the next year, they’ll make periodic visits to the doctor to monitor Jocelyn.
Zamarripa knows how close she came to losing her daughter altogether, and having a happy baby back home has helped the family count their blessings.
“That’s really what has been keeping me so grounded and grateful,” she said.
Click here for the family’s fundraising page to help with Jocelyn’s medical bills.