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A Colusa boy with leukemia and his family’s drive to save his life

November was always a busy time for the Franco family of Colusa. Youngest son, Isaac, was turning 2 in a few weeks. It was also the anniversary of Grandpa’s death and the Francos had a cousin’s birthday party to attend. Lots on the calendar … and something that wasn’t: another doctor visit to try and find out what was going on with Isaac.

Isaac in a car seat
Isaac Franco was a healthy baby, but as a toddler, he became lethargic and stopped wanting to eat.

“He was a big, healthy baby and had always been a good eater, but that had changed,” said Daisy Franco, Isaac’s mother. “Plus, he had low energy and recurring fevers. I took him in several times, but there was no diagnosis. When his skin changed color, I made another appointment.”

November 2016: Destination unknown

It was November 7, 2016. Franco arrived at the doctor’s office with Isaac and insisted on a blood test even though she had been previously told it was likely a virus.

“Our doctor was out of town, so we had an appointment with the nurse practitioner who had not seen Isaac before,” Franco said. “She trusted that as his mom, I knew my son. And that when I said something wasn’t right, something wasn’t right.” They ran a Complete Blood Count (CBC). Mother’s intuition proved correct.

That afternoon – the anniversary of her father’s death from cancer and in the middle of her cousin’s party – Daisy got a call about Isaac’s labs.

“The nurse practitioner told me to write some numbers down, pack a bag and take Isaac to UC Davis Children’s Hospital immediately,” Franco said. “I hung up the phone and turned to my mom and said, ‘I think Isaac may have leukemia.’”

Put the pedal to the metal

When the Franco’s arrived that night, Daisy distinctly remembers how welcoming the staff was. She shared her fears about cancer and the team reassured her that whatever the diagnosis, her son was in the best hands.

“There were eight to 10 doctors and nurses, in and out, while they admitted Isaac and waited for more results. It already felt like family,” Franco said. “Then I met Dr. Marcio. He was on call that night. He was so caring and understanding. I knew we were in the right place.”

Isaac in a hospital bed
Isaac was a model patient and remained a fighter throughout his treatment.

Marcio Malogolowkin, affectionately known as Dr. Marcio, is the chief of pediatric oncology/hematology at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Known for his gentle bedside manner and tremendous expertise, he would prove to be just what the Franco family needed to face the trials ahead. That, and little Isaac’s amazing fighting spirit.

“I got the official diagnosis and my heart sank. I was numb,” Franco said. “When I finally started to cry, Dr. Marcio got some tissues and Isaac grabbed the box from him. My baby wiped away my tears. From that moment, I knew we were going to get through this.”

“From the beginning, Isaac was a delightful child to take care of. I could tell he liked and trusted me,” Malogolowkin said. “The Francos embraced the treatment, so it was a wonderful partnership. It’s a testament to the care team and family working together.”

The long journey through treatment

Chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) was about to get underway. ALL is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Leukemia may affect red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Isaac’s treatment began in November 2016. He would spend his second birthday at the children’s hospital and was admitted again within weeks. His cancer treatment would continue for years.

During that time, Isaac was often hospitalized and made countless trips to the pediatric infusion center. Franco says her son not only received amazing medical care, but he also got the emotional support he needed. She credits the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department for programs like Beads of Courage, interactions with the facility dog and music therapy for making the treatment much more tolerable.

Isaac in the Cancer Center
Pediatric patient, Isaac Franco, at UC Davis during treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

“He loves Huggie the facility dog and even learned to play drums while he was there. Dr. Marcio called him the ‘Little Drummer Boy,’” Franco chuckled. “This was our home for three years. They are like our family. I can’t thank the team enough for helping Isaac make the best of this time.”

November 2019: A worthwhile trip

Throughout treatment, Isaac remained the brave and empathetic boy who had dried his mom’s tears at just 2 years old. Mom, Daisy, says it’s what got her through her son’s illness. 

“He had IV chemo through a port and had to take oral chemo two to three times a day for three years and never fought it. He had to have lumbar punctures, too, and I was told he handled it better than most adults,” Franco said. “He is a strong, resilient boy who wouldn’t be taken down by this.” 

And he wasn’t. In November 2019, Isaac had his last treatment. He was cancer-free. 

“November is an emotional month for us,” Franco said. “Isaac’s birthday is November 21 and not only was he diagnosed in November, he completed treatment two days before his fifth birthday. We had a lot to celebrate that year.” 

The road ahead

A few more Novembers later, the Francos are still celebrating and only make the drive to UC Davis Children’s Hospital a couple times a year. Isaac’s prognosis is good, and he loves playing soccer, watching Raiders football and going to the ocean. Oh, and drumming. 

“Isaac has always had a great attitude. I mean, have you seen him play the drums?” Malogolowkin quipped. “He plays his heart out and then throws down the sticks. It’s fantastic! My ‘Little Drummer Boy’ made it.” 

“We didn’t know what would happen, but here we are in second grade,” Franco said. “Isaac is the same sweet boy with the big heart. He endured and so did we. We couldn’t be more proud of him and more grateful to UC Davis and Dr. Marcio for saving his life.”

Isaac at the ocean with his hands up
Now in second grade, Isaac loves drumming, playing soccer, watching Raiders football and going to the ocean.