At his costume drive last Thursday for children who have to spend Halloween in the hospital, Nico Castro – a 6-year-old who’s battling brain cancer – ran around as a "Star Wars" Stormtrooper.
“Which one’s the sick child?” a donator asked his mom Marlene Castro, she recounted to TODAY.com “You can’t see he has no hair with the helmet," said Castro. "He’s running around. It’s nice to keep things normal as possible for him. We’re limited.”
Nico was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, which is cancer of the cerebellum (that’s Latin for the “little brain,” which is important for balance and movement), last November and has spent holidays in the hospital near his home in San Bruno, California. He kept asking whether he’d be able to celebrate Halloween, his favorite holiday, and when his treatment schedule cleared for Oct. 31, he was ecstatic at first – and then he quickly grew concerned about children too sick to leave the hospital for the costume-and-candy filled day.
“Halloween’s my favorite,” Nico told TODAY.com. “I don’t want them to miss out on the candy.”
He initially wanted to buy costumes for all the sick children at Target, but the Castro’s finances are tighter now because of his cancer treatment so his parents suggested a drive. The family ended up purchasing a few items to ensure they had something for everybody, such as masks for kids who can’t don full-body suits and fun sock booties for walking around the pediatric wards. And the drive is bringing in a slew of Halloween costumes, books and games.
Bob Marshall’s real estate office, next to Nico’s dad’s automotive business where last Thursday’s drive took place, donated a bag of costumes. He estimates about 100 people turned out, and most surprising was seeing Nico, who often has to stay inside because of his weakened immune system.
“He was all dressed up and running around and trying to talk to people. With the chemo and everything he’s going through, he’s very quiet and very tired all the time,” Marshall said. “To see him active was a really good thing.”
When asked how he decided to help the children at the hospital celebrate Halloween, Nico told TODAY.com: “I just had the idea.”
His idea even surprised his parents.
“We do instill being considerate of others who don’t have as much as we do even though we don’t have that much. We donate all the time for holidays, always a boy and girl toy,” Castro, 44, said. “It did surprise me because of his age. He’s aware and sensitive to kids who can’t go trick or treating.”
She thinks her son has a special bond with the other children at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center. He cries a lot when he’s there, missing his brother, sister and dog and one night when he was especially inconsolable, an older patient sharing the room comforted him, Castro recalls. Recently, Nico’s gotten better, walking the halls looking into the rooms at the other children, asking what’s wrong and if they’ll be alright.
“He feels like he has a connection to the kids that are there,” she says. “He hasn’t been able to go to school since last November. Play dates are difficult because his (blood counts) are low. The kids he sees the most are the kids in the hospital. He thinks of them as friends. They’re sick and they have something in common.”
The community of San Bruno, Calif., about 10 miles south of San Francisco, has also rallied around Nico. Friends pitch in to carpool the Castro’s other children to their afterschool activities, cook or drop off dinner and donate cards for gas and groceries. Nico’s 11-year-old sister, who now wants to be a nurse, also collected notes from students and teachers at school on a card for her little brother.
“They’re a really positive family,” said Marshall, a family friend who has pitched in at their automotive business when they were supporting Nico in the hospital. Some students at Junipero Serra High School, where Marshall is the wrestling coach, organized a car wash to raise money for the family, he added.
Nico’s prognosis is good and his cancer has not spread, doctors told Castro. He hit a low after his initial surgery though: He developed posterior fossa syndrome, causing him to lose his ability to speak, walk, even swallow. Nico had to spend two and a half months in the hospital and go through intensive rehabilitation. On his current chemotherapy regiment, he’s out of the hospital more than in but his next rounds aren’t like clockwork, hinging on how quickly his immune system can recover.
“His body has taken a hit from chemo and radiation, but his spirit is so spunky,” Castro said. “He’s bound and determined to not let it get to him. He makes the best of the bad situation. I learn so much from him. I learn every day. The fact the he feels crummy and thinks of others… He’s doing well.”
And Nico’s Halloween spirit is as strong as ever. Last year, he went as Batman, whose cartoons he watches. This year, he’s upgrading to the Dark Knight. Why?
“Because I like Batman,” Nico said.
His mom said he also likes that the mask conceals his bald head so he looks like a regular kid.
But as a 6-year-old fighting – and beating – brain cancer with the compassion to bring Halloween to other children like him, he’s so much more.
Nico's Halloween drive is ongoing. Donators can bring or send new, packaged Halloween costumes to his dad's automotive company:
C&C Automotive Refinishing
860 San Mateo Ave.
San Bruno, CA 94066
TODAY.com contributor Jasmin Aline Persch is imagining the looks on the children's faces when Nico hands out the Halloween costumes in the hospital. What a treat!