Aspiring pilot battles cancer twice amid medical shortages

Like most 19-year-olds, Brandon Proyoto had a dream - and the motivation that comes with youth to achieve it. He wanted to become a pilot and applied to a flight school in Venezuela.

However, unlike most 19-year-olds, leukemia got in the way, forcing him to put a pause on his dream.

The motivation, though, never left him.

He was diagnosed about a month before the beginning of school. He felt tired all the time and didn’t know why.

“I thought it was my eating habits or I don’t know, that I simply felt ill for some reason,” he said. “I thought it was strange.”

At first he thought it was zika, a disease that causes fever and joint pain. His doctor said it was a heart disease.

Proyoto felt dizzy and feverish all the time. He visited more doctors but no one could tell him what his illness was.

He found out he got in pilot school in November of 2015 and would begin classes in February. He was ecstatic.

“It was a big surprise, I started crying, it was really nice,” he said.

Brandon Proyoto, pictured right with his mother and a friend after he was accepted to flight school in Caracas. (Submitted)

However, the happiness wouldn’t last for long.

One month later, he went to the emergency room at the military hospital in Caracas. The specialists he needed to see were out of the country and his appointment was put off till January.

They ran a hematology on him, and he fainted as soon as he left the laboratory.

“You feel as though you see little star flashes, as if you were getting up really fast, but in a more intense way,” he said. “You lose strength and have the need to hold onto someone.”

Proyoto, accompanied by his mother and grandmother, went to two more clinics, but they couldn’t put a finger on what was wrong with him.

At 11 one night they went to a private clinic in Caracas. They ran more exams on him.

He felt as though his heart was stopping.

“You feel as if it took a second and a half for your heart to beat again,” Proyoto said.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through this or what I’m going through right now.”

The doctors had already told his mom what was wrong with him. She didn’t tell her son though. He understood.

“I was [hoping] to pursue the career of my dreams, and she didn’t know how I would take it,” he said.

Proyoto was monitored at the hospital for two days. The doctor that checked him was surprised he didn’t know his diagnosis - though Proyoto saw it coming. When he found out, his first thought was ‘is it treatable?’

“I am surprised I took the news calmly. I stayed in the hospital bed thinking ‘okay, it’s treatable, let’s begin immediately,’” he said. “‘I want to get out of this, I don’t want to die of this, I want to die of old age.’

He started chemotherapy that same night. He had a good prognostic. The treatment lasted two years and three months.

Proyoto in Caracas in 2017 (Submitted)

He was clean for nine months. But cancer resurged again in the fall of 2018, now on his testicles.

One of Proyoto's testes was removed this past September. He was administered steroids.

The new treatment required him to buy some pills that acted similar to chemotherapy. The hospital had run out of them, but Proyoto’s mother managed to buy two bottles from Colombia and slowly paid for them.

They needed about a hundred more of them.

The doctors ran more exams on Proyoto and told him he 95 percent of his blood was cancerous and two options: to get his other testicle removed - leaving him without the possibility of having biological children - or start with radiation, which he would have to pay for, as it was only privately offered.

Proyoto, armed with positivism, was ready for a second fight against cancer.

Today, aside from receiving harsh medical treatments, Proyoto has to keep a strict diet where he eats protein at least five days per week, and three meals per day.

With Venezuela’s food and medicine shortage, that has been difficult. His mother earns minimum wage, which is a little more than the price of meat in Venezuela.

“There were harsh times. We couldn’t find food and my mom didn’t have money to buy it either. We only had pasta and butter, and it was little. She gave it to me,” he said. “I saw all of it, it was harsh. And I know there are many people in my country who suffer worse things.”

Through a mutual acquaintance, the FundaSanar foundation, Proyoto got in touch with Jimy Beltran, founder of Venezuela180 and Vanessa Guzman and Oriana Guzman, Founders of Feeding Smiles

The three foundations have helped Proyoto with the cost of expensive medicines and food for two months and a half. The money fundraised by Venezuela180 and Feeding Smiles is sent to the FundaSanar, who administers the money that pays for Proyoto’s medical expenses and food.

Venezuela 180 and Feeding Smiles, two non-profit organizations, have been helping provide the food and medical treatments Proyoto needs.

Beltran, who is also Venezuelan, looks up to Proyoto’s positivity.

"The thing I admire the most about him is his willingness to continue and to fight his sickness despite the difficult conditions that he, his mom and the country is experiencing,” he said.

“He always has a good attitude and positive about life and his situation.”

For Angela Rojas, Director of FundaSanar, helping Proyoto fully recover could give hope to many people in Venezuela suffering from the same disease

“Brandon is undergoing an unprecedented treatment for the cure of leukemia that has worked in the US and Canada and is being performed in Venezuela for the first time in the worst hospital conditions [the country has seen],” said Rojas

”If this treatment were to [be a success], I would open the door and hope for many people who now have this disease.”

Vanessa Guzman, Co-Founder of Feeding Smiles, wants to continue helping Brandon because from the distance she realizes that “we can save lives with the help we are sending, no matter how big or small [our help] is, this impacts the lives of people like Brandon and gives them hope to continue living”

Since he started his treatment, Proyoto’s presence of cancer cells in his body has decreased to 4.8 percent.

His doctors are happy with his body’s response to the treatment. Proyoto, now 23, hopes that he will win the battle without the need of a transplant.

“What motivates me is to find the way, once I get out of this, to study what I love to give my mom and grandmother a future, so they can live what they haven’t been able to live until now,” he said.

“Life is beautiful. There’s always going to be something to smile and have hope for. You always have to move forward, but not fall, never fall, no matter how bad you feel.”

Venezuela180 and Feeding Smiles have been sponsoring Brandon’s medical treatment over the past months. This story is part of a fundraising campaign organized by Venezuela180 and Feeding Smiles.