ELKHART — The Peña family didn’t know their daughter had cancer until the day she died.
They discovered that Eunice, 18, had a tumor when she was 12 years old and she was complaining about headaches. Olivia Peña, Eunice’s mother, put her hand on her daughter’s head to check her temperature and noticed that her head felt bumpy.
After taking her to the doctor and getting an MRI, they discovered there was a tumor on Eunice’s brain.
But doctors told them that the tumor was benign.
“The doctor said that she would be able to have a normal life,” Sacnicte Peña, Eunice’s older sister, said. “During that time, the doctor said she would need checkups her whole life. We just never expected that she was only going to last for five more years.”
On Nov. 4, Eunice was in intensive care after her fifth surgery at an Indianapolis hospital. The surgery had to be stopped midway through because she was hemorrhaging, but her family was hopeful that doctors could complete the surgery once Eunice was stable again.
That’s when doctors told them that Eunice had suffered brain damage, that her tumor was cancerous and aggressively growing. There was nothing else they could do for her.
“You can tell when somebody is about to give you bad news, and that’s how I felt when I saw the doctor,” Sacnicte said, remembering the day.
Sacnicte had to translate the doctor’s words for her parents, who sometimes need help with English. She didn’t know how to translate the words that came next, though — the doctor was recommending that Eunice be taken off of life support.
“My mom was begging the doctor to try to do something for Eunice, but he said he couldn’t, and if he could he would have done it right away without asking her permission,” Sacnicte remembered, with tears rolling down her face.
The doctor offered the family the option of putting Eunice in a home and keeping her alive, but said that she would eventually pass away anyway because the tumor would keep growing.
The Peña family called their pastor and close friends back in Elkhart. These friends made the trip to Indianapolis to be with the family as they considered what to do.
“We finally made a decision around 8:30 p.m.,” Sacnicte said. “The nurses told us that depending on the person, they might stay alive for a day or two after being disconnected. One of my parents’ prayers was that if God was going to take her, that he would do it quickly without her suffering anymore.”
Eunice died at 11:30 p.m., as her father and a family friend were just finishing a prayer next to her bed.
Sacnicte said, translating for her father Israel, that the family was shocked at the outpouring of support they received. People they didn’t know called to say that they were praying or donated money. A YouTube video that the family’s pastor made of Eunice was being viewed by young people in other countries.
Israel wondered aloud to a coworker why people were being so supportive. The coworker told him that it was because Eunice’s strength had inspired so many people.
Eunice didn’t have much pain from the tumor, and her parents said that she didn’t complain. She kept doing her usual chores and schoolwork, juggling these tasks in between visits to the hospital. Doctors were surprised to see that Eunice was able to be so active, because her tumor was so large.
“She took things very well, and she was very positive,” Sacnicte said. “We never thought things would happen like they did, because she was so positive.”
The Latino Student Union at Central organized a fundraiser to help Eunice’s family. They sold Hershey’s kisses in a small bag, packaged with a poem that Eunice wrote. Two other local schools are also doing this fundraiser.
Others who would like to help the Peña family can donate to Elkhart Central’s International Club, which is collecting all donations.