Meet ‘Super Girl,’ Unmasked
A love for animals and a fighting spirit help Natalia, 5, cope with cancer.
Last Halloween, a photo of twin superheroes—a young girl in a metallic pink Supergirl costume and a Labrador retriever dressed as Superdog—became a social media sensation at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The dog, Marley, is part of the Amerman Family Foundation Dog Therapy Program at CHLA. But just who is that masked girl? It turns out Supergirl is really Natalia Juanero, and she’s a huge animal lover who hopes to one day be a veterinarian. Natalia, 5, already has a menagerie of pets, including a miniature Australian shepherd, Kobe; a cat, Bella; two bearded dragon lizards and a large aquarium of fish. Plus, she regularly feeds the horses at a local ranch. Natalia and her family arrived at CHLA last summer, just two weeks after she’d graduated from preschool. That’s when she was diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
During that initial stay, Natalia spent nine days at CHLA, undergoing intense chemotherapy to push her cancer into remission. It was a terrible week. Today, though, the only thing Natalia remembers about it is Charlie.
A small Shih-Tzu, Charlie and his owner are volunteers in the Dog Therapy Program, which brings comfort and cheer to patients and families through more than 6,000 bedside visits a year. One of the most inclusive and innovative programs of its kind, it also incorporates dogs into physical therapy sessions, pain management and palliative care. Charlie was the first therapy dog to visit Natalia. At the time, she was so sick she didn’t want to see anyone, not even the stream of friends and family members who visited regularly, bearing toys and gifts.
“I don’t want toys,” she told them. “I want to get better.”
But when Charlie trotted into her room, her face lit up. “He lay on the bed with her for half an hour,” recalls her mom, Trish Manzanedo. “She was smiling at him and petting him and saying, ‘Ohhh, you’re so cute!’ Her whole demeanor changed.”
Since then, Natalia has befriended several of the program’s 85 therapy dogs. Time and again, these furry volunteers—and their two-legged owners—have brought much-needed moments of joy to her toughest days. “It’s hard to overstate what a difference a dog can make, not just to a child but to a child’s family,” says Kate Buhrmaster, program coordinator. “That’s what’s really rewarding. We can often turn a rough morning completely around, just with a simple dog visit.”
Last Halloween started out as one of those rough days. Natalia was feeling OK, but was unhappy about being in the hospital. Still, her spirits brightened considerably when she picked out the Supergirl costume in the playroom. She donned the outfit, complete with shiny pink cape, mask and stylin’ knee-high boots, and strutted out into the corridor—where she soon ran into Marley, a Labrador retriever, and his owner, Yvonne Gutierrez. With Marley in a Superdog costume, the cameras started clicking. “Smile, Supergirl!” said her dad, Kevin Juanero. Exuberant, Natalia struck a fighting stance, then punched her fist high in the air. “She was ready to fly out of there, her and the dog,” says her mom, laughing. “She was Supergirl.” Posted on CHLA’s social media sites, the image was an immediate hit, garnering more than 2,200 likes on Instagram and 2,061 likes on Facebook.
A photo posted by Children's Hospital L.A. (@childrensla) on Nov 7, 2014 at 2:11pm PST
Natalia and her family are now getting ready to celebrate an exciting milestone: the start of the final “maintenance” phase of Natalia’s leukemia treatment! While this phase will last two years, the therapy is less intense. Her hair will grow back, and best of all, she’ll finally be able to go back to school. She can’t wait. Her family is honored to share Natalia’s story and hopes that it helps other children and families coping with cancer. “That picture really captured Natalia’s strength and fighting spirit,” says her dad. “We wanted to share it so that other kids in the same fight could see it.” Want to volunteer with your dog in the Amerman Family Foundation Dog Therapy Program? Go to www.CHLA.org/DogTherapy.