Instead of being tucked in bed at home with visions of sugarplums dancing in his head on Christmas Eve two years ago, 3-year-old leukemia patient Nathan Heredia was confined to a hospital bed and hooked up to IVs in the isolation unit at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto.
Nathan’s holiday may not have been filled with the magic of sleigh bells and candy canes and Christmas trees that year, but thanks to some giving hearts, the day wasn’t completely cheerless: The 3-year-old’s spirits were lifted when he awoke Christmas morning to a surprise heap of toys arranged at the edge of his bed. The items were donated from people in the community.
“It made me less sad,” said Nathan, now 5, cuddling with a giant teddy bear at his mother’s home in Morgan Hill.
This Christmas, Nathan wants to give back.
“I’m going to go to my hospital and I’m going to share with the kids there because they’re sad,” he said.
Dutifully acting on her son’s wishes, Nathan’s mother Lina Perez is hosting a toy drive at the Milias Restaurant on Monterey Street in Gilroy from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2 to collect toys for children who will be spending Christmas morning at Lucile Packard.
“Someone did that for us a few years ago, and I personally know how much it touched us,” Perez said.
Perez, the Milias’ pastry chef, is going all out in order to make the toy drive event a blast for all. Santa will be appearing at the restaurant for children to meet and take photos with, and the Milias will be offering free breakfast for those 10 years old and younger.
“As a mother, I just know the feeling of being at the hospital on Christmas morning, and I know how good waking up to toys made (my son) feel,” she said.
The hit gift for Nathan that morning was a talking Woody doll from the “Toy Story” films. Little did the gift giver know, Nathan was a “Toy Story” fanatic, and the life-size doll made him ecstatic. He spent the rest of the day wearing his “Toy Story” pajamas and cuddling with his new doll as nurses monitored his vitals and blood count levels every hour.
Unlike a typical child who can sleep off a fever with Tylenol and homemade chicken noodle soup, a trip to the emergency room is mandatory when Nathan falls ill because of his fragile condition.
So when the young boy developed a high fever the night of Dec. 23 2010, Perez, a single mother of four, knew her family wouldn’t be having the cozy Christmas cuddled around the tree she planned for.
Like most worried mothers would do when caring for a child with cancer, Perez left her three other children with her parents and spent the night with Nathan in the hospital that Christmas Eve.
This year, the doctors says unless something drastic happens medically, Nathan will get to be home for Christmas – which gives Perez a spark of hope. But she also knows that anything can happen, and doesn’t hold on to any plans too tightly.
Nathan’s siblings are thrilled that their brother is in better health this holiday season.
“When I ask my other kids what they want for Christmas, they say, ‘We just want Nathan home,’” Perez said.
Nathan is two years into his three-year treatment program. Ever since his diagnosis in August 2010, the child has faced tear-inducing chemotherapy shots in his spine, strong dosages of steroid medication, high fevers, infections and developmental therapy.
But on a recent chilly Tuesday, Nathan appeared to be in good spirits as he tromped around his home with spunk and sass, like a typical 5-year-old – if not slightly paler.
Dressed as stylishly as a Gap Kids model in a checkered button down, faded jeans, leather boots and a gray newsboy hat, he spent the afternoon bickering with his older brothers and younger sister, throwing stuffed toys for the family dog, rolling on the floor and laughing while playing with his toy dinosaur, and sneaking pieces from his chocolate advent calendar every time his mother turned her back.
“It’s almost Christmas,” the pudgy-cheeked Nathan squealed, with big eyes and a coy smile. “Can I open my chocolate calendar?”
Perez said she revels in Nathan’s spirit and energy, despite finding him exhausting at times.
“As crazy as he is, I’d rather have him like this. We’ve seen him like a potato on the couch before, so this is such an improvement,” she said, kissing her giggling son on the forehead.
Perez feels that Nathan’s chances of winning his battle against cancer are strong.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling to know he might be OK,” she said. Perez reflected on the many drives to Lucile Packard where she felt exhausted, alone and scared. Nathan – sick and cranky – would whisper to her from the back seat.
“I’m tired, Mom. I’m tired,” he would tell her.
Perez broke down into tears as she remembered those drives, when she thought that maybe Nathan didn’t want to fight anymore, that maybe he was ready to give up.
If it weren’t for the love and support from her parents, Maria and Rafael Perez – who live with Perez and the children in a tidy west Morgan Hill home – along with her ex-husband’s family, she wouldn’t have made it through those years.
Perez also is thankful for her job at the Milias, where owners Adam Sanchez and Ann Zyburra have been accommodating and understanding of her hectic schedule as a single mother and to Nathan’s time-consuming treatments and unplanned hospital trips.
A talented pastry chef, Perez is the creative master mind behind the Milias’ ever-changing inventive dessert menu, which features seasonal decadence such as bittersweet chocolate torte and pumpkin bread pudding. She plans to whip up mini cupcakes and a few other holiday treats for Sunday’s toy drive event.
Sanchez was glad to help sponsor the toy drive when Perez approached him.
“(Nathan) is such a nice little boy, and (Perez) is such a hardworking mom who has had a lot of bad things happen in her life. But you wouldn’t know it. She is always in a great mood, and puts others before her,” he said.
Perez and Nathan collected a truckload of toys last year for Lucile Packard by hosting a toy drive in her home – but this year, with the support from the Milias, they hope to collect even more.
According to Nathan’s expert opinion, Hot Wheel cars and dinosaurs are the best toys to bring. But anything else is good, too, he said.
“Bring lots of them, so all the kids can play,” he said.
To partake in the drive, bring an unwrapped gift for a girl or boy between the ages of infant and 16.
Children can get their photos taken while they visit with Santa and also enjoy a free breakfast complete with scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruit and a trip the “North Pole” ice cream bar.
Adults can enjoy the Milias’ gourmet brunch menu and sip on $2 mimosas. There will also be a raffle for bottles of wine, gift cards to the Milias and to First Street Coffee.
Reservations are highly recommended.