Girl Hopes for Better Birthdays

Diyaa Shah was taken by ambulance to Children’s Medical Center of Dallas on June 2, 2016, where she spent the night in the ICU being poked and prodded while undergoing a battery of emergency tests.

It also happened to be her 11th birthday.

A couple of days later, the University Park girl and her family learned she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“I didn’t look scared, but on the inside I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have cancer,’ so I was scared,” Diyaa (pronounced Dee-ya) recalled.

So began the tween’s yearlong cancer battle, which included numerous rounds of chemotherapy and several hospitalizations for related ailments, like her serious bout last fall with lung infections and acute heart failure.

“She was critically sick,” explained her mother Kejal. “To be honest, we didn’t know if she was going to make it.”

Since that lengthy hospital stay, Diyaa has for the most part been on the road to recovery as her cancer has gone into remission.

Earlier this year she was selected to participate in the 29th annual Children’s Cancer Fund Gala (CCF), a fundraiser for pediatric oncology research and treatment programs, held in April at the Hilton Anatole Hotel.

The event featured live and silent auctions, as well as a children’s fashion show. More than $1 million was raised for the organization.

Diyaa and 15 other young cancer patients served as runway models during the fashion show.

She was outfitted head-to-toe in fancy clothing and shoes, with professionally styled makeup and nails, before she was escorted to the catwalk by radio and television personality Amy Vanderoef.

“Once I got onstage I felt more comfortable,” Diyaa said of her time in the spotlight.

Executive director of development for CCF Jennifer Arthur said, “There are so many amazing children that we have an opportunity to serve, and Diyaa is definitely one of our shining stars, so we were thrilled to invite her to walk the runway.”

At the event, Diyaa also rubbed elbows with Dallas Cowboys legends Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, who served as honorary chairmen. In advance of the gala, she and Aikman were featured together on CCF billboards throughout Dallas.

Meeting other children with cancer at the gala was a good experience for Diyaa, her mother said. “With childhood cancer you realize, once your child has it, it’s not that uncommon.”

Kejal and her husband, Rinoo, are both doctors. Despite that, neither recognized that their daughter was ill until Diyaa’s grandfather, a New Jersey pediatrician, noticed during his visit for her birthday that she looked pale.

“He realized that something was not right,” Kejal recalled. He immediately ordered blood tests for Diyaa, which revealed that she was severely anemic.

Following a trip to a local emergency room, Diyaa was transferred to Children’s Medical Center’s ICU and underwent extensive blood testing and a bone marrow biopsy before being diagnosed with ALL, the most common type of childhood cancer. It has about a 90 percent cure rate.

Her chemotherapy treatments began soon after and went well for a couple of months, Kejal said, until Diyaa experienced severe complications beginning in September. During a six-week hospital stay, she was put on a ventilator to breathe and took a pair of medications that maintained her blood pressure.

“I was really scared. I would cry. I would want my mom and dad to be there all night, so it was hard,” Diyaa said.

“We just prayed,” Kejal recalled. “And she fought it.”

As a sixth-grader at McCulloch Intermediate School, Diyaa kept up with schoolwork throughout her treatment through Highland Park ISD’s Homebound Program.

“I didn’t want to [have to] stay back a grade,” she said. Diyaa is looking forward to starting seventh grade in the fall at Highland Park Middle School.

But before school starts, she is planning a big celebration for her 12th birthday, which this year will hopefully take place away from the hospital.

“I want to have a party … with seven of my good friends,” Diyaa said, “And I also want to celebrate it with my family and go out to dinner.”

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