Daya Tamayo grabbed the electric clippers and prepared to go to town.
“Could you remove the white hair too?” joked Jaime Serna, a CHOC staff member.
Daya beamed as she began to give a buzz cut to Jaime, her close confidant and a patient engagement coach and educator in nursing administration at CHOC.
Jaime was making good on a promise he made to Daya over a year ago, when Daya was diagnosed with stage-four rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in soft tissue.
“Daya, when you get bald, I’m going to get bald with you,” Jaime told her at the time.
Jaime, a longtime CHOC employee, is beloved by many CHOC patients thanks to his years as a phlebotomist who could make blood draws less painful and scary.
Not wanting to wait to lose her hair, Daya cut her own long black hair before starting chemotherapy treatment. After she completed her first round, Daya danced on her bed.
“I’m a warrior!” she shouted.
A brief trip home
After rounds of chemotherapy and radiation following her initial diagnosis, Daya and her mother, Deisy Saldana, her brother Alan, and other relatives who for months had rotated visiting her at CHOC and staying at the Ronald McDonald House returned to their home in Catalina.
Daya, an athletic seventh grader with a love for swimming, basketball and baseball, felt well enough to enjoy ziplining and other outdoor and ocean activities.
Then, her conditioned worsened. Her cancer spread throughout her body, including to her brain.
Daya returned to CHOC.
Making good on a promise
As Daya approached the end of her life, she never forgot the promise Jaime made to her, and she made fulfilling it one of her last wishes.
Jaime recently let Daya, 12, shave his head inside her hospital room.
Daya’s support system
A few days after his haircut, Jaime, sporting a salt-and-pepper buzz cut, visited Daya.
Daya briefly opened her eyes and gave Jaime a thumbs up before closing her eyes again.
Then into the room walked Clare Loper, a child life specialist in CHOC’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department, a group that works to normalize the hospitalize environment for children and families. Child life specialists can also offer new diagnosis education and support, and ever since Clare provided diagnosis education to Daya when she was first admitted to CHOC, she has supported Daya’s family.
Soon, three other CHOC associates came to visit Daya: Theresa Coronado, oncology care manager assistant; Racquel Rearos, case coordinator; and Noemi Beas, case coordinator assistant.
They shared fun stories about Daya as they viewed dozens of photos plastered throughout the room, including ones of her quinceanera celebration that was held earlier this fall. The ceremony traditionally marks a girl’s coming of age, which in happy times comes when a girl turns 15.
Daya’s 13th birthday is Feb. 18, 2021.
Daya had plans to make YouTube videos about beating cancer to encourage other young patients. She loved to deliver food to them on the oncology floor.
A diehard Dodgers fan, word about Daya’s cancer battle reached the team’s dugout during the recent World Series. Dodger player Cody Bellinger texted Daya a special video greeting.
“Hi Daya, it’s Cody,” the star player said. “Everyone in the Dodgers clubhouse is rooting for you. We’re going to do everything we can to win this World Series for you, so stay strong, and we’re all rooting for you.”
The Dodgers made good on their promise to Daya, too.
Deisy said she and Daya talked about her last wishes. One of them was not returning home.
“I want to stay with my family at CHOC,” Daya had declared.
Another was cutting Jaime’s hair.
Another was Daya’s desire to be cremated.
“She wanted me to take her in a locket everywhere I go,” Deisy says.
After a long and heroic battle with cancer, Daya passed away in November.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Deisy said of losing Daya. “But I just don’t want to accept it. I don’t ever want to accept it.”
Theresa said Daya has made a big difference in her life. As a last message to Daya, she added:
“You are a warrior, a true definition of a fighter. You are the strongest and toughest girl I know. I love you to pieces.”
Jaime said Daya had the power to instantly lighten the mood in her hospital room.
“She never gave up,” he said. “No matter what happened to her, she didn’t show pain. She taught us all to be strong and not to be afraid.”
CHOC Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the cancer specialty.