KENNEWICK — It was Brandon Pocasangre's 17th birthday when he learned of the tumor in his little sister Emilia's brain.
That day, he quit the summer baseball league he had raised hundreds of dollars to join. The next day, he drove with his father to the Seattle hospital where the Kennewick kindergartner was being treated.
"I always have had a little soft spot for her," Brandon said.
Everyone in the Pocasangre family has made sacrifices since Emilia was diagnosed in June with pilocytic astrocytoma -- a slow-growing tumor that often is benign but causes serious problems as it puts pressure on the brain.
Her parents, Cynthia and Hugo Pocasangre, have put their jobs on hold and spent weeks away from their son.
Brandon has spent his senior year at Kennewick High with his parents and little sister missing out on his basketball team's success. Older sister Analy Janine, 22, has helped as much as she could, but she also is caring for her two children, holding down a job and attending college classes.
But extended family, employers, classmates and teammates have stepped up to help. And it is not lost on the Pocasangre family.
"Without people, we're nobody," Cynthia Pocasangre said.
A terrifying discovery
Last summer, no one understood why Emilia was losing weight and had no appetite. Doctors thought it was an eating disorder.
But then Emilia began sleeping a lot and getting severe headaches. Her mom rushed her to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland when Emilia began vomiting the night of June 20. A CT scan revealed the tumor and she was flown to Children's Hospital in Seattle.
Surgeons removed a small portion of the tumor four days later. Removing the rest, her mother said, might damage Emilia's sight or speech. It might paralyze her. So surgeons implanted a cerebral shunt to drain fluid from her skull and control the pressure created by the tumor.
Emilia was hospitalized about two weeks, and her parents, along with Brandon, were there for it all. At one point, Brandon's friend and teammate, Reggie Clinton, also visited.
6 surgeries since June
Debbie Lockard, Emilia's kindergarten teacher at Cascade Elementary School, said her students didn't pay much attention to Emilia's shunt when the little girl showed up for the first day of school. Emilia was friendly and that was all that mattered, Lockard said.
At first, Emilia was free to play and do everything the other kids did, but she began to get infections -- a common problem for kids with shunts. Her activities were limited. Soon, she began missing school. She hasn't been to class since Thanksgiving.
The infections required emergency treatment, and Emilia was flown by helicopter to Seattle three more times. Another shunt was placed in her head during the Christmas holidays.
Despite the hospital stays and six surgeries since June, Emilia remains upbeat and energetic, her mom said.
Several weeks ago, when Emilia was at home, she visited her school to pick up classwork from the librarian.
"(The librarian) said, 'I've heard you've been sick,' and Emilia just said, 'Yes, but I can still smile,' " Lockard said.
But now Emilia is back in the Seattle hospital with another infection. She had surgery Feb. 8, with another scheduled for later this month.
Offering to help
Brandon said he doesn't talk about his little sister much, though he thinks of her often. He said he doesn't want to burden people and knows this is something his family needs to get through.
He often is the only one living in the family's home in east Kennewick. He keeps himself busy with school and basketball. Next is baseball, but it's different not having a full and happy home.
At night, when he is home alone, he finds himself turning on Emilia's small glittery Christmas tree in the living room. She decorated it herself, but had to spend the holidays in the hospital. It reminds him of her.
His older sister helps financially, visits with him and joins him for trips to Seattle to see Emilia. Brandon's grandparents, Elizabeth and Javier Estrada, check on him regularly and cook him meals. Teachers at Emilia's school also volunteer to make sure he has hot dinners.
"It's made me have to grow up sooner," he said. "I've had to become smarter."
The family has health insurance, but it doesn't cover everything. Both parents have taken extensive time off work -- Cynthia Pocasangre from her job at WorkSource Columbia Basin and her husband from ConAgra.
The family signed up for aid from Sparrow Clubs USA, an Oregon-based charity that organizes students to help other kids who are suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
The organization approached Emilia's school in November about "adopting" her as a Sparrow. Lockard said the school jumped at the opportunity.
Corporate sponsors provide donations of up to $4,060 to a tax-exempt account managed by Sparrow Clubs, said Nancy Wilson, president of the Sparrow Clubs board. Students then do community service projects in exchange for the corporate donations.
The Pocasangres wouldn't pay taxes on the donations, unlike money generated through a simple fundraiser.
But staff and students at Cascade Elementary have run into a problem because they can't find any Tri-City business sponsors. Sparrow Clubs USA has given $1,560 so far, and the school is looking for companies to raise the other $2,500.
Wilson said the organization does not have much exposure in Eastern Washington, which hampered fundraising efforts, and the weak economy also has been a factor.
Lockard said she and others know the family needs help immediately and arranged an impromptu coin drive while they look for corporate sponsors to set up the Sparrow Club account. The monthlong coin drive started Feb. 12. After just two days, the school collected $1,544.
"They're bringing in coffee cans full of change for her," Lockard said.
And Brandon's classmates at Kennewick High planned to collect donations at Friday night's game vs. Kamiakin.
The uncertain road
Chemotherapy likely is the next step in treating Emilia's tumor, but Cynthia Pocasangre said that hasn't been discussed as the 6-year-old struggles with infections. No one knows when Emilia could return to school.
Brandon said he hasn't decided what he will do after graduating. He would like to play baseball and continue his education, but he is thinking he needs to stay close to home.
Everyone is just thinking about Emilia. And Cynthia Pocasangre said that is exactly what she and the rest of her family need right now.
"It keeps me stronger," she said. "The faith is there."