Some people choose the path of least resistance. But for Dr. Maria Falcon-Cantrill ’01 BS the path she most feared chose her.
“I was afraid to get close to the patients and their families and then lose them,” the 37-year-old pediatric oncologist said. “These kids are amazing. They are the bravest, strongest people. It’s just a blessing to be in their lives every day.”
Falcon-Cantrill graduated from UIW with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. In 2007, she completed medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center.
Since the age of two, Falcon-Cantrill knew she wanted to be a doctor. As a resident, she was trying to decide between general medicine and specializing in pediatrics. Working with children could be challenging, she thought.
“As a kid I used to watch the St. Jude’s commercials on Saturday mornings and think, how sad,” she said. “But I’m happy. I’m drawn to the complexity of the patients. Nothing is ever straight forward.”
Bonding with the children and their families drew her in as well. And a medical school friend told her, “You can’t waste your gifts.” That message sticks with her even today.
Now, Falcon-Cantrill works alongside two partners with HCA Physician’s Group, an affiliate of Methodist Children’s Hospital. She works one week as the on-call doctor, followed by two weeks in the clinic.
One of the most challenging aspects of Falcon-Cantrill’s job is telling a family their child is going to die.
“I’ve had every reaction,” she said. “Sometimes they get angry and they yell at me and they don’t believe me. I’ve had other families who’ve believed me right away. And I’ve had others who are in denial and you have to repeat things over and over again.”
But she recognizes her problems are nothing compared to what her patients and their families go through. “It changes your outlook and how you live your life,” she said.
“No matter how hard it is for me as a mother, no matter how difficult it is, it’s nothing compared to what they are experiencing,” she said. “I hold it together, but I can cry in the car or cry in the elevator.”
“It’s really hard not to take it home,” Falcon-Cantrill said.
She said her husband Dr. Chris Cantrill, who is an adult urologist, is also extremely supportive. The couple have a 20-month-old son William and another baby on the way.
What’s most important, she said, is helping children and giving hope.
Marco Barrow, 19, was no longer a child but not quite an adult when his dad took him to see Falcon-Cantrill for what turned out to be leukemia.
“She gave me hope from the very beginning,” Marco said. “She explained everything and she calmed me down.”
By the time Marco and his family found Falcon-Cantrill, he had been in excruciating pain for more than a month. His doctor had been unable to identify what was wrong and could not ease the pain.
“I can tell you, Oct. 16 was the day I went to her first at the hospital,” Marco’s father, Achim Barrow, remembered. “We’d had a rough time – it was a month of not knowing what was going on with my boy.”
He went on to say, “We wouldn’t be here…He wouldn’t be here.”
But on a recent spring afternoon, Marco walked in to the brightly painted clinic with his parents not far behind. They had come to celebrate the end of chemotherapy and Marco’s triumph over a leukemia that when detected had already infected 98 percent of his blood.
His last treatment had past, but Falcon-Cantrill preferred to wait to celebrate.
“I’m always a little superstitious so I wait until I get the scans and I can see it’s all clear before we have a party,” Falcon-Cantrill said.
Doctors and nurses gathered around. There was a decadent chocolate cake, a shiny Mylar balloon and a small pile of wrapped presents.
Marco stood at the center of attention smiling. He insisted that the celebration be put on hold until his brother could arrive. Then he reached up and rang the gold bell signaling the end of his treatment.
His dad snapped photos before sliding in behind his son for a hug, gently kissing his neck. Falcon-Cantrill had tears welling up in her eyes. But before they could fall down her cheeks, she smiled and began to joke with Marco.
“I remember being diagnosed,” Marco said to no one in particular. “… and all the pain I had.”
Achim said Falcon-Cantrill made the difference – she was the longshot and she, in the end, was the key to Marco’s survival.
“He’d sneeze and she would come in – ‘Let’s do this or let’s do a culture,’” Achim said. “Nothing was too much.”
Achim said he knew his son’s care was more than personal for Falcon-Cantrill.
“He was like her son, or grandson or a family member,” he said. “She’s just as emotional. She just hugged me and had tears in her eyes.”
Marco said, “I think today is a very good day. Today marks the end of everything and I should be able to move on with my life.”
Karen Wyatt, former director of the Center for Veterans Affairs at UIW, agrees with Achim. Falcon-Cantrill also developed a strong relationship with her daughter, Lyndsey, diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, at the age of 13.
“She was kind and motherly and patient,” Wyatt said. “And more importantly, Lyndsey took part in every aspect of her treatment. And it was hard.”
“You wait for scans. You wait for results. Your life gets put on hold while you wait,” Wyatt said. All the while, Falcon-Cantrill advocated for Lyndsey, listened to her needs as a teenager and made sure she explained every aspect of treatment as it happened.
The Wyatt’s have now participated each year in a cause close to Falcon-Cantrill’s heart – the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which pours the proceeds from its annual fundraiser into pediatric cancer research.
Lyndsey’s dad, Andrew, shaved his head to raise money for St. Baldrick’s in 2016 as he has each year since his daughter was diagnosed.
“My husband jumped at the chance to do this – it was a way to stay connected to her,” Wyatt said. Participating in the fundraiser gave the family something tangible to hold on to “because it’s the worst sense of helplessness,” she said. Lyndsey, now 15, has no signs of cancer. She’s back at Incarnate Word High School.
“We still email,” Wyatt said. “We still share photos. We still share Lyndsey’s successes. She’s (Falcon-Cantrill) become a part of our road to recovery forever.”
Falcon-Cantrill also serves on the board of Camp Discovery, a special camp just for pediatric cancer patients. She first worked at the camp in 2010. “And I’ve never been the same since,” she said. “I watched one of my patients, he’s blind – do the high ropes course. There’s nothing our patients can’t do at camp.”
The camp is held each July in Kerrville and is free for the children who participate. Some 75 percent of the volunteers are survivors of childhood cancer. The camp can accommodate chemotherapy and keeps doctors and nurses on staff.
“It has been the dying wish of multiple campers to go to camp one more time,” Falcon-Cantrill said.
“So it may mean multiple doctors and nurses stay awake around the clock to care for a fragile child – but it’s worth it.”
For Falcon-Cantrill taking the path she most feared has been more than worth it.
By Tricia Schwennesen