MISSION — When Elianna Perez was told she had leukemia, she wasn’t so concerned about the diagnosis, but instead the news that she’d be losing her hair after chemotherapy. Then came a discovery she never saw coming: she couldn’t sing.
“It was horrible,” said the 17-year-old senior at Mission High School. “I could not sing a pitch; it sounded so awful.”
After hours of training to get herself back on track after a bone marrow transplant, Perez was named a member the Texas Music Educators Association All-State Women’s Choir. She’ll be performing with the group, and attending workshops, in San Antonio next month.
Perez’s health took a quick turn from a fever to the cancer diagnosis within days in June 2008. For weeks, she was in and out of hospitals, eventually going through chemotherapy through her sophomore year and being home bound, only to be allowed to attend school with her peers in May.
“That was my sophomore year,” she said with a chuckle. “Going back that last month was nice because I was at home for so long.”
Eventually, doctors found a perfect bone marrow match for Perez in her younger brother Cody, currently a 16-year-old sophomore at MHS, who also participates in choir.
“It’s the best thing I’ve done, ever,” he said. “So even though I was scared, I’m glad I did it.”
Perez admitted she wasn’t aware of how impactful her brother’s match was until doctors told her its rare that people find such matches in siblings and that other cancer patients undergo a number of transplants before finding the right fit.
“It’s a miracle,” she said of her brother’s match.
Perez’s mother Anabel Gutierrez said her family spent Christmas in Houston’s Texas Children’s Hospital with two of her four children under tight watch to ensure they didn’t get sick from outside germs.
And through the ordeal, Gutierrez said she watched her daughter, a bright, happy 135-pound singer be reduced, literally, to a hairless, fragile 98-pound girl.
“It was quite a journey,” Gutierrez said as Perez ran her fingers through her shoulder-length dark brown tousled hair.
Through her medical ordeal, it’d been nearly a year since Perez had sung. And when she couldn’t sing, she said it was the most devastating part of her illness.
“I broke down crying,” she said, adding that she’d been singing since she was 2. “I can’t sing? It tripped me out.”
Through the help of her teachers at MHS and her pastor at McAllen’s The Door Christian Fellowship, where she’s a choir member, she was able to train herself to sing again.
“I was getting up early every day and staying at school late,” she said of her efforts. “It was just choir, choir, choir.”
In singing, Perez said she’s always been able to find an outlet to express herself. While Perez typically sings as a soprano, she sings an alto part in her competition piece.
“If you’re angry, you can just let it out,” she said.
In the competition to qualify for the All-State group, Perez said she was nervous and thought she missed her chance to make the cut when she made a few mistakes on the sight-reading portion of the competition.
When the names were announced, with the lowest scores called out first, Perez said she was sure she missed her chance. Then she heard her name.
“I just said, ‘What? How did I make it?’ I was in total shock,” she said. “It’s so cool; it’s super exciting.”
Gutierrez said the All-State nod gives her family extra bragging rights after their battle with cancer.
“I knew she had a beautiful voice, and the year she couldn’t sing was depressing,” Gutierrez said. “But when she started again, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she can sing again.’”
The family credits numerous supporters in school and church, along with Perez’s friends.
“They just kept telling me to focus on getting better before singing,” she said.
After graduation, Perez said she plans to attend South Texas College for her basic courses before enrolling in music schools. Her ultimate goal is to be a choir director.
“This has really taught me what I want,” she said. “I sing in the shower, at school, to the radio at home to the point my mom has to shout at me to turn it down. Anytime I have a chance, I sing.”
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