Miracles do happen. Just ask the Arellano family. When their youngest child, Asia, was about a year old, she had a troubling, persistent rash. A week after an initial doctor visit, she was taken in for blood work. A day later, her parents, Sandy and Matt Arellano, received a phone call that would rock them to their core.
“Mom got a call to bring Asia back to a hospital immediately because they feared she had leukemia,” recalls Heidelberg University junior basketball player Alex Arellano, the middle of three Arellano children.
The diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia confirmed, Asia began a harsh chemotherapy regimen to prepare her small body for the bone marrow transplant that would be required to save her life. She was hospitalized for 11-1/2 months in pediatric oncology units at Dayton Children’s and Cincinnati Children’s hospitals. Sandy stayed with her young daughter around the clock while Matt took care of Alex and oldest son Anthony at home. The family reconnected on the weekends when Asia was feeling well.
“As a family, we talked every night to keep our bond strong,” Sandy said. “We changed our lives around tremendously but it was worth it to try to keep some normalcy for our children. Our family is definitely worth it.”
Doctors had informed Sandy and Matt early on that Asia’s best chance for survival would be a bone marrow transplant from an immediate family member. “We were told the chances were unfortunately slim to find an immediate family match, but it was the best option and that’s just what she had to have,” said Sandy. So the entire family was tested. After what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, they received miraculous news.
“Asia’s oncologist came into the room and told us, ‘We have a match! Alexander!’”
That was in March 2002; Asia had her bone marrow transplant that July. Alex was 5 years old. At that tender age, he doesn’t remember much from the surgery except Anthony pushing him in a wheelchair from the hospital to the car. But he was old enough to understand one thing: He just wanted his little sister to get better. “I had only known her being sick,” he said. “I just wanted her to come home.”
The transplant was a success. Although the doctors predicted Asia might experience some developmental delays and deficits, she defied the odds. She is a standout three-sport athlete at Paulding (Ohio) High School. And she’s smart, too, getting ready to graduate this spring with a 4.0 GPA. But the best outcome is that today, she is completely healthy, confirmed by annual checkups which gives the entire family peace of mind.
When Alex was being recruited to play college basketball, the Heidelberg coaching staff made a strong impression on him. “Heidelberg came out of nowhere, really early in the process,” Alex said. “That motivated me that I could play college basketball.”
Alex turned down an offer to play for a Division II school because Heidelberg felt more like family. “The coaches stayed in touch with me. I think they only missed maybe two of my games senior year. Their attitude was just totally different.” When decision day came, Alex had to choose between a scholarship and the place he felt he’d be happy. He chose happiness.
“I still feel that way today,” he said.
Soon Asia will get to experience that same feeling of home and family. This fall, she’ll be a first-year student in the Class of 2023, joining Alex on campus for his senior year and a fifth year in the PlusOne Advantage® Full Tuition MBA Scholarship program.
“Alex has always been just a call away, but knowing that he will be right down the street will make my transition to college so much easier,” Asia said. Although she’ll make plenty of her own friends, spending time with her big brother and best friend will help ease the homesickness.
Asia plans to major in early childhood education and would like to earn her master’s degree in speech pathology and audiology. As of now, she’s undecided about playing a sport at Heidelberg – although if Alex had his way, she’d definitely be a student-athlete.
“I’m trying to get her to play softball here. But she’s big on grades. I’d love to see her try it, though. She’s a lefty outfielder and she’s super fast,” he said. While he’d have lots of sibling advice about balancing academics and athletics, he’ll give Asia her space. “I’d watch over her, yeah, but give her distance to do her own thing. I just want to make sure she’s safe.”
A natural leader
It didn’t take long for Heidelberg head basketball coach Andy Bucheit to notice the strong family values of the 6-6 post player he calls “genuine and authentic.”
“The core values he holds himself to are a reflection of his upbringing,” the coach said. “It’s no surprise Alex has emerged as a leader in our program. I think a lot of it has to do with the love and support he has experienced from his family. He leads with those same characteristics within our program and our young men really seem to respond to his guidance.”
Andy thought so highly of Alex that he took him on the road to conduct basketball camps last summer as an intern. His calm, confident demeanor and great communication skills were a real asset.
“I learned very quickly that I could trust Alex to take a group by himself and run the drills efficiently,” Andy said.
The experience may bode well for Alex’s future. A sport management major, he hopes to one day coach high school basketball or become an athletic director. He’s still nursing a back injury that forced him to red-shirt his sophomore year and miss a good chunk of his junior year. But he still found ways to contribute to the team, especially working with younger players.
Sports = family ties
If Asia decides to play softball, the Arellano family – who routinely makes the two-hour trek to campus to be in the stands for Alex’s home games – will be on the road to Tiffin more often. But they won’t mind. Sports, like their shared commitment to spend time together as a family, is a common bond.
Matt has coached their youth teams and all three Arellano kids have helped coach as well. “They love to teach and encourage where they can,” Sandy said.
“It’s funny to hear that Alex and Asia have a strong bond because of his bone marrow donation, and so that may be a bonus, but they have a strong bond anyway, due to the closeness of our family,” Sandy said. “We really enjoy seeing our children growing together and making time for each other as they are growing up into adulthood. We are so proud of who they are.”
Comfort for mom & dad
To have both Alex and Asia together at Heidelberg will be a wonderful comfort for Sandy and Matt. There’s just something about knowing family is right around the corner. This once-in-a-lifetime experience for the siblings to attend college together will make great family memories, too.
“Thankfully, we get to share these and many more memories with our extended family, and we are all so excited about it,” Sandy said.