When Riolo Lais and his father moved from the Philippines to the United States in his teens, his mother had to stay behind. Still, Riolo remained close with his mom, chatting constantly through video calls to ease how much they missed one another.
Riolo had only been settled in his new home for a few years when, just shy of age 20, he developed a form of brain cancer called pineoblastoma that is common in children. Despite treatment with chemotherapy and radiation, his tumor continued to grow and doctors said the treatments had started to cause more harm than good. They recommended hospice care and Riolo’s family chose JourneyCare, which offers the largest of only a handful of pediatric hospice and palliative care programs in Illinois.
With an understanding that his time was limited, Riolo shared his greatest wish with JourneyCare’s pediatric hospice team: He wanted to return to the Philippines and reunite with his mother.
“We wanted nothing more than to make this wish happen,” JourneyCare Pediatric Case Manager Jessica Harris, RN, said. “It seemed impossible, but we wanted to try our best.”
But time was limited. Riolo’s condition was worsening. The pediatric team had only three weeks to prepare for the trip because there was high probability that he may not live past that window, Jessica said.
The team set to work on all of the critical logistics. Pediatric Social Worker Heather Kroski connected with a charitable foundation willing to fund airfare and travel expenses for Riolo and his father. She also researched hospitals and hospice programs in the Philippines for the family to select in advance of their arrival. Additionally, Riolo’s medical supplies were shipped ahead of time and the team secured all necessary documentation for the family’s trip.
The JourneyCare team also helped Riolo and his dad navigate complicated COVID-19 restrictions. They researched steps the father and son needed to take for quarantine once they arrived in the Philippines, then helped them secure COVID-19 testing three days prior to the flight.
“We completed everything four days ahead of our goal, Heather and I were so excited that we pulled it off,” Jessica said.
But days after Riolo received his negative COVID-19 test, a devastating set of complications threatened the entire trip. Riolo spiked a 104-degree temperature. He was shaking and experienced additional severe symptoms. Riolo was transferred to Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago – a JourneyCare pediatric partner – where doctors found an infection that rendered his body septic and required seven days of antibiotics via IV.
The trip was put at risk when their flight had to be rescheduled, leaving only one flight available within the time Riolo had left to live – but his JourneyCare team worried he might not be stable for travel in time because his kidneys were shutting down.
“Panic was setting in for everyone,” Jessica said.
The JourneyCare and Lurie’s teams collaborated to stabilize Riolo and get his kidneys functioning adequately in time for his trip, which Jessica says was “truly a team effort.”
It was a Thursday in late February when Jessica and Heather said their goodbyes to Riolo and his dad. Jessica said Riolo had a “priceless” smile on his face when his mom joined the group on video chat, because she was so excited for Riolo’s arrival.
Two days later, Riolo and his dad left the hospital, heading straight for O’Hare Airport. They sent pictures to the JourneyCare pediatrics team from the terminal and during the flight. After 22 hours of flying, then five more days of quarantine, Riolo and his mother were together once again.
“In our job, a happy ending is always what we want,” Harris said. “This was an incredible journey and our team was privileged to be a part of it.”