Dominic Vargas believes in Santa Claus.
When his mother, Rachelle, rushed him to the emergency room on Christmas Eve because blood was gushing from his nose, Dominic was only worried about one thing. “But Mommy,” he said, “Santa doesn’t come to hospitals!”
“Well, why not?” Rachelle improvised. “Kids live at hospitals, too. He’ll be here.”
Dominic, 11, also wants to believe in a life after cancer. But a week ago, his doctors told him definitively that, after six years of helping him fight leukemia, there was nothing more they could do. Hospice care was all that was left.
So Dominic is a boy faced with a terminal illness. But he’s also more than that, a young man who has chosen to use his circumstances to inspire others.
Dominic sees his favorite professional athletes differently than most kids his age. While others might idolize men like Chiefs safety Eric Berry for his seemingly super-human strength and air of immortality, Dominic admires him because the 25-year-old is staring into the daunting eyes of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Dominic has never met Berry, but he knows Berry is a human being, just like him.
“He’s not my favorite player because he plays football,” Dominic says. “He’s my favorite ’cause he has cancer.”
Children’s Mercy Hospital looms above Gillham Road in downtown Kansas City.
From the outside, it serves as a humbling reminder to passing cars that a multi-story building containing 301 hospital beds must exist for some children to survive. But inside its walls, vitality is instilled through vibrant cartoon murals and quilts with a different child smiling from each square.
Walk down any hallway, and you’ll get a taste of the child inside each room from how his or her hospital door is decorated. On Dominic’s door hangs this Chiefs-colored sign:
If you’re a woman, Dominic will insist on doing your makeup. He wants you to feel beautiful. Grandma Rachel thinks he should be the next Oscar de la Renta.
Despite the pain churning inside of him, Dominic greets visitors with an earnest smile and a wisecrack. He rests his head on a pillow bearing the image of pop star Selena Gomez and tucks his body under a Chiefs blanket.
If you ask him, Gomez is his girlfriend. He has a doll named after her that sits with him in his hospital bed, and wonders aloud what she sees in Justin Bieber. “He doesn’t deserve her,” he says matter-of-factly.
The Berrys and Selenas of this world have kept Dominic’s heart company during his treatments. He hasn’t been able to attend fifth grade often at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School since his diagnosis in 2009, or spend as much time with his friends. But he has grown closer than ever to his family, especially his mother and 10-year-old brother, Ruben.
Rachelle Vargas is a single mom who spends her days and nights with Dominic at the hospital while other family members help take care of Ruben. As January progresses, Dominic sleeps more often than he smiles. As Rachelle watches him sleep, she thinks, I’m okay; I’m just scared.
“I don’t know how I will react when it happens,” she says. “I’m going to be lost, not being able to see him every day.”
She carries with her the experiences the three have accumulated together during the last six years.
“I don’t have one picture without Dominic smiling in it,” she says with a smile.
Last September, through its Victory Project initiative, Sporting Kansas City gave Dominic and his family the gift of some experiences with the team.
Dominic met defender Matt Besler on Sept. 21. And now, as Dominic fights for his life four months later, Besler thinks of Dominic and sends him a text message while training in Chile with the U.S. men’s national team.
“Dominic, I wanted to reach out and say hi. I remember you visiting last year at practice ... I hope you enjoyed your time at Sporting KC and had fun. You’re always welcome to come hang out anytime you want!! We are in preseason right now but we are thinking about you.”
Dominic and Ruben also had the opportunity to meet Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles last month through Camp Quality, a foundation dedicated to “letting kids with cancer be kids again.”
Dominic smiles as he remembers meeting Charles that day, how the NFL star said, “What’s up, buddy?” and then posed for a photo with the boys, his helmet off and Dominic’s medical mask on.
On Sunday, Catholic Bishop Robert Finn performed a special confirmation ceremony for Dominic in Children’s Mercy’s Lisa Barth Interfaith Chapel.
“Have you chosen a confirmation name?” Bishop Finn asks Dominic.
“St. Michael,” Dominic answers quietly but assuredly. He takes a sip from his red Chiefs cup and looks up to his mother, puckering his lips and motioning to her. She leans over his bed to kiss him. Dominic then strokes the Selena Gomez doll’s hair as the bishop blesses him and finalizes his confirmation.
After the ceremony, Dominic smiles for picture after picture with all of his family members, friends, sponsors and teachers until he just couldn’t smile anymore. He is then rolled to the elevator, Rachelle and Ruben flanking him on his left and right. Dominic holds up his Selena doll and waves as the elevator doors close.
Back in his hospital room, former Chiefs Pro Bowl fullback Tony Richardson has a message for him, which is read aloud to him:
“Good Morning, Dominic. My name is Tony Richardson, and I feel so honored and blessed to have the opportunity to meet you all the way from New York City to Kansas City. ... I was so very fortunate to play for the Chiefs for a few years and work hard to represent the Red and White. It took a lot of courage to go out there every week and play hard and help our team win, but nothing like the courage that you have shown over your life, and I wanted you to know that you are my hero. A few things that I have learned over the years is that you may not win every battle in sports or life, but it is important to try hard every day and never give up and that is exactly why you are a true warrior and a role model.
“It is interesting that sometimes when you are working hard at something, you really don’t understand the impact that you have on the people around you. I wish I could be in KC right now and could sit next you and see the light that is shining on, through and around you right now. … I feel proud to be able to call you my hero and my angel and I want you to know that I am always here for you and your family. I want to thank you for being the most amazing young warrior that we all have met and thank you for looking over us and protecting us even when things around didn’t feel so good and we didn’t quite understand everything and have all the answers.
“I want you to keep smiling and touching lives wherever this journey takes you. I love you, Dominic.”
Dominic is silent for a moment, processing everything that has just been said to him.
“Thank you,” he whispers.
If Eric Berry were to walk into his hospital room today, Dominic knows what he would say to him.
“Keep fighting,” he whispers softly.
Rachelle knows there won’t be a fairytale ending for her son, and she is trying to come to terms with this. The thought of losing Dominic is unfathomable. It hurts. There isn’t anything she wouldn’t give to have decades longer with him.
Perhaps that’s why she wants to share every piece of Dominic’s fight with as many people as possible.
“Even through everything he’s been through, as you can see, he still has a smile on his face and doesn’t let it get him down,” Rachelle says. “He’s an inspiration to me, and I’ve heard from other people that he is (an inspiration) to them.”
None of us is immortal. Not an 11-year-old boy, and not a 25-year-old man known best for the No. 29 he wears on Sundays.
But if there exists a silver lining in that cold truth, it is that our mortality can keep close our compassion for one another.