Eight-year-old Ryan Lopez is well known in Monticello, Ind., in part for his thick hair that once flowed well past his shoulders. In the spring of 2010, Ryan decided to grow his hair for Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that provides hairpieces to children with medical hair loss. “I lost my hair, and I wanted to make a wig for other people who lost their hair,” he explains.
Ryan is now a fourth-grader at Oaklawn Elementary School. He was 5 and in kindergarten in early April 2008 when he experienced flu-like symptoms that persisted and worsened. Staff at a local clinic told his mother to take him immediately to Home Hospital in Lafayette. Doctors in the emergency room there called an ambulance to take him to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Ryan’s parents Rochaun and Tony had recently moved to the area from California and didn’t even know what “Riley” was.
Ryan arrived at Riley Hospital limp and frail. His diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He would spend the next two months fighting one life-threatening complication after another. His mother stayed with him, and his father and older brother TJ came on weekends.
Ryan’s type of leukemia required different levels of chemotherapy over the next three years and two months. Last summer the family went to Mexico to celebrate two exciting achievements: Ryan completing his treatment, and his brother graduating from high school. At the ocean, Ryan learned to boogie board. “I couldn’t get him out,” Rochaun laughs. “He’s a little fish.”
Ryan’s illness prompted his family to get involved in Twin Lakes High School’s dance marathons to raise money for Riley Hospital. Ryan appears in a promotional video for Purdue University’s dance marathon as well. The family feels strongly about giving back to the hospital and the town that supported such new residents. The Lopez family is especially grateful to Susan Willbanks, TJ’s guidance counselor-“our angel”-who took the family under her wing through many acts of kindness.
“Ryan has shown real courage and character,” Willbanks says. “Riley Hospital saved Ryan’s life, and I am convinced that he will use the life he has been given to do great things in the world.”