UCF alumna’s baby battles leukemia

Korbyn Martinez has the soul of an adventurer.

At a little less than 2 years old, he lugs a small, but important, backpack around and explores as much of the world as he can.

He can make the sound of dozens of animals. He loves to pretend his arm is an elephant trunk as he makes a loud trumpeting sound. Considered “rough and tumble” by his parents, he loves being active and playing ball.

“You’d never know he has what he has,” said Hillary Martinez, Korbyn’s mother and a 2006 UCF alumna. The family currently lives in Oviedo.

Korbyn has a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, known acute lymphocytic leukemia or ALL. His small red backpack is filled with chemotherapy drugs, which he receives in a constant, 24-hour stream. Everything he’s learned about animals has been through a screen; he’s never been able to go to a zoo.

This is the most common type of cancer for those younger than 15, said Dr. Dennis Borrero Ramos, a pediatric oncologist trained in pediatric hematology and bone marrow transplants at Florida Hospital. According to the American Cancer Society, ALL starts from early forms of lymphocytes in the bone marrow. Lymphocytes cells protect the body from infection and are a major part of the immune system.

“Any of the blood-forming cells from the bone marrow can turn into a leukemia cell,” according to the American Cancer Society. “Once this change takes place, the leukemia cells no longer mature in a normal way. Leukemia cells might reproduce quickly, and not die when they should. These cells build up in the bone marrow, crowding out normal cells … where they can keep other cells in the body from doing their jobs.”

It started out small. When Korbyn was 3 months old, his mother and father, Hillary and Bryce Martinez, who are in their 30s, had enrolled him in daycare so they could both get back to work. Korbyn started getting ear infections like most of the kids, but something was different.

By July 2015, Korbyn had suffered more than three ear infections and was on antibiotics for another. Within a week of treatment, he was back in bed with a fever. Shuffling a feverish Korbyn between his bed and their pediatrician’s office became just another part of life for the Martinez family; he would have a fever, then get medicine, then the fever would spike, so they’d get another medicine, and so on and so forth. The family brought in another pediatrician who theorized that Korbyn had some kind of serious infection based on the swelling of his spleen and liver.

“He thought [Korbyn] had a virus like mononucleosis because [Korbyn] kept getting ear infections and the antibiotics weren’t working,” Hillary Martinez said. “So at that time, he had taken blood from Korbyn to run some more tests, and he wanted us to come to Florida Hospital to get ultrasounds done on his abdomen to check the size and see if they really were enlarged.”

The Martinez family checked into the hospital on Friday, July 17, 2015. After doctors saw the test results, Korbyn was admitted to the hospital that same day. The results showed that in addition to Korbyn’s enlarged spleen and liver, he also had a very high lymphocyte and white blood cell count.

That Sunday Korbyn was diagnosed with ALL. On Monday he had a port installed, and by Tuesday he had started chemotherapy.

“There was like no time to grieve … we had to act. We had to be proactive and just do what they were telling us, pretty much,” Hillary Martinez said.

The family stayed in the hospital for 40 days and 41 nights, Hillary Martinez said. She and her husband used all their vacation time during this period to the point where other employees began donating their time off to the family.

Korbyn received chemotherapy for nine months, three months for each step of chemotherapy including induction, consolidation and maintenance. According to the National Cancer Institute, induction is the first phase of treatment that kills leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. Consolidation is the second phase of treatment, started after remission, meant to kill any remaining leukemia cells in the body that could cause a relapse. Maintenance is the last phase of treatment, and it also aims to kill any remaining leukemia cells, only at a lower dosage than the previous phases.

Borrero Ramos said that significant improvements have been made in the survival rates of children and adolescents with cancer.

“For example, between 1975 and 2010, childhood cancer mortality decreased by more than 50 percent,” he said. “For acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the five-year survival rate has increased over the same time from 60 percent to approximately 90 percent for children younger than 15 years.”

Korbyn had been cancer-free since day 29 of his chemotherapy, Hillary Martinez said.

“We never anticipated he would relapse,” Hillary Martinez said. “All the doctors talked about how well he was doing, that his prognosis was really good, that his response to the chemotherapy was great — it was working. To hear that he had positive cells, it was the first time my husband and I were able to grieve.”

Martinez said doctors were unsure about continuing chemotherapy due to Korbyn’s age and the fact that only five leukemic cells had been found in his spinal fluid.

“Once you relapse, you pretty much have to start at day one with chemotherapy,” Hillary Martinez said. “Do induction again, do consolidation again, do maintenance again.”

Chemotherapy doesn’t know which cells are bad, it just kills everything including your own immune system. The family can’t wear shoes in the house, they can’t spend time with other children who have had vaccines, they can’t come home from work and immediately hug him without putting him in danger.

“We all technically have leukemia,” Hillary Martinez said. “Our immune system fights it off every day, cell by cell. It’s almost like his immune system doesn’t know how to fight off the leukemia so they keep killing it off and that’s why the chemotherapy works … it’s like a bomb that kills everything at once.”

Doctors found a chemical study a month after Korbyn relapsed that showed a treatment plan of three blocks of chemotherapy and then a bone marrow transplant to replace the immune system. Borrero Ramos said the new regimen is a constant, 24-hour infusion for “many days” which requires Korbyn to carry a pump with him at all times.

Once Korbyn’s grandmother, Cindy Ridgeway, 57, heard about Korbyn needing a bone marrow transplant, she began organizing Be The Match events. Be The Match is an organization operated by the National Marrow Donor Program that works to create an international bone marrow donor registry.

Bone marrow donation doesn’t have anything to do with blood type, Hillary Martinez explained, it has to do with DNA.

“There are 14 potential [DNA] matches,” she said. “They are looking for at least 10 out of the 14 in order for Korbyn to be able to use that person’s bone marrow.”

Hillary and Bryce Martinez are both five out of 10 matches, as they are his biological parents, but the low DNA match increases the risk of transplant rejection.

Borrero Ramos said that once a match is found, he does not expect there to be any major complications.

“I think this new treatment is going to cure him and he will be a good and important member of our society,” he said. “I know that God has a purpose with him.”

Korbyn’s family plans to take him to the Brevard Zoo as soon as they can.

“He’s just such a special boy,” Bryce Martinez said. “It’s been tough not to show him off to anybody, just how special his is because he’s a bubble boy.”

It’s been a long road, Bryce Martinez said, we just hope this is the right path for him.


Help Baby Korbyn

There is a Be The Match event on July 20 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. outside the Student Union on UCF’s main campus. For those who want to donate but cannot physically attend the events, Be The Match will allow you to register as a donor from the comfort of your home.

This story was originally published on July 6, 2016.


Alissa Smith is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @thealissasmith or email her at AlissaS@centralfloridafuture.com.

Publication: Central Florida Future

Gov. Scott declares state of emergency in Orlando

Forty-nine people are dead and 53 wounded after a shooting at Pulse nightclub early Sunday. It is the deadliest killing spree in United States history, authorities say.

The shooter was first identified by Congressman Alan Grayson as Omar Mateen, 29, from Fort Pierce.

FBI agent Ronald Hopper said Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call just before the mass shooting, and the Islamic State has stated on Twitter that it takes credit for the shooting, but the investigation into this claim is still ongoing.

Hopper said Mateen had been investigated in 2013 for boasting to coworkers that he was connected to a terrorist organization and again in 2014 for possible ties to an American suicide bomber. The investigation conducted by the FBI found that “contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or threat at that time.”

“Ultimately, we were unable to verify the substance of his comments and the investigation was closed,” Hopper said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Orlando on Sunday, and President Barack Obama delivered a public statement Sunday at 1:30 p.m. decrying the shooting as “an act of terror.”

“Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” Obama said.

The president said that Homeland Security and the FBI are currently investigating any links Mateen might have with terrorist groups.

“We are still learning all the facts,” he said. “This is an open investigation. We’ve reached no definitive judgment on the precise motivations of the killer. The FBI is appropriately investigation this as an act of terrorism, and I have directed that we must spare no effort to determine what, if any, inspiration or association this killer may have had with terrorist groups.”

Gov. Scott asked for a moment of silence in the United States to be held at 6 p.m. Sunday.

“This is an act of terrorism. You just can’t imagine this happening in any community,” Scott said.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the shooting was “the most difficult day in the history of Orlando.”

“Today, we’re dealing with something we never imagined and is unimaginable,” Dyer said. “Since the last update, we have gotten better access to the building. We have cleared the building, and it is with great sadness that I share that we have not 20, but 50 casualties.”

Police Chief John Mina said the tragedy began at 2:02 a.m., when three police officers engaged the suspect in a gun battle outside the club. A hostage situation then took place inside, and a SWAT team was called in, Mina said. Police received updates from patrons trapped in the club and decided to storm the club at about 5 a.m.

“Our biggest concern was further loss of life,” Mina said. “We exchanged gunfire with the suspect, and he was dead at the scene.”

One officer was injured, 103 civilians shot and 30 rescued from the club. Many of the injured were transferred to Orlando Regional Medical Center, which was placed on lockdown.

Mina said 11 Orlando Police officers exchanged gunfire with Mateen and have since been temporarily relieved of duty. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting an independent investigation into the shots fired by police officers. The names of the police officers who have been relieved of duty will be released over the next few days.

The suspect’s father, Seddique Mir Mateen, told NBC News on Sunday that he was “in shock,” but that his son had recently expressed anti-gay sentiments. He said the attack “had nothing to do with religion.” He said he’s not sure why his son would’ve fired on a group of people but that he had become angry a couple of months ago when he saw two men kissing on a Miami street.

Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, told the FBI that she suspected her husband was planning an attack, according to NBC News.

Grayson said he believes the shooting had religious motive but that it’s too early in the investigation to tell.

“There’s blood everywhere,” he said. “I spoke with someone on the scene and there’s an enormous amount of evidence.”

Club patrons say this was not Mateen’s first visit to Pulse. Two Pulse regulars, Ty “Aries” Smith and Kevin West, saw Mateen at the club least a dozen times.

Mina said Mateen was armed with a pistol, an automatic rifle similar to an AR-15 and some sort of unidentified device. A representative of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that both weapons were bought legally within one week.

FBI Special Agent Ronald Hopper said the case was being investigated as a possible act of terrorism, either domestic or international.

Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, thanked law enforcement officials for their efforts and cautioned any rush to judgment.

“No one could have expected this, no one could have prepared for it, it could have happened anywhere,” a clearly shaken Musri said at a news conference. “It’s like lightning.”

He said the city and Muslim community “are heartbroken.”

Saturday night into Sunday, the club was celebrating Latin Night. Club patron Christopher Hansen told CNN he heard what could have been 20 or 30 shots, setting off a panic as people scrambled for cover or raced for the exits. He said he helped a couple people who were wounded.

“It’s just shocking,” said Hansen, who crawled to safety. “I just saw bodies going down.”

As the tragedy was unfolding, Pulse Orlando posted to its Facebook page, “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.”

Paul Valo, lead pastor for the Christ Church of Orlando, about two blocks from Pulse, said the church canceled services for the day to open its sanctuary for prayer and provide water and food for first responders.

Once street barricades have been cleared, the church plans to hold prayer services.

“This is, needless to say, tragic. But we’re here to bring hope to the community,” Valo said.

The UCF Police Department was among the agencies that responded to the shooting, said UCF spokeswoman Courtney Gilmartin. UCF’s Victim Services was at Orlando Regional Medical Center to attend to those who were hurt.

In a video statement, UCF President John Hitt expressed his condolences for the victims and their families today.

“I want everyone to know that our hearts go out to all of the victims and their families,” Hitt said. “It’s a terrible tragedy for all of Central Florida, and certainly for the university. I know that UCF Knights will want to be there to comfort and console and to assist. Again, our hearts and prayers go out to all of the victims and their families.”

“Today is a tragic day and we are making it clear anyone who attacks our LGBT community, anyone who attacks anyone will be gone after to the fullest extent of the law,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who said she was bringing victims advocates from throughout the state of Florida here to Orlando.

“To anybody thinking about doing this to our state — our justice is swift and our penalties severe,” Gov. Scott said.

The shooting spree came just one day after The Voice star Christina Grimmie was shot and killed after a concert Friday night at the Plaza Live Theater in Orlando. That gunman, identified as Kevin James Loibl, 27, of St. Petersburg, fatally shot himself after the attack.

“The FBI has specifically asked me to say to the people of Fort Pierce, St. Lucie and the Treasure Coast: If you know something, please come forward,” State Sen. Bill Nelson said. “The only way that we can put the dots together to find out the complete picture is for you to speak out.”

Three hours of terror

» 2:02 a.m. Shots ring out as a police officer working as a security guard engages in gun battle with assailant Omar Mateen, who was armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle, a handgun and an unidentified device.

» 2:06 a.m. Mina Justice was sound asleep when, she told the Associated Press, she got a text from her son, Eddie, from inside the club.

“Mommy I love you,” the message said. “In club they shooting.”

» 2:09 a.m. About seven minutes after the first shot, the Pulse Orlando nightclub’s Facebook page zapped out a chilling message: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”

» 2:17 a.m. @bjoewolf (Brandon Wolf), tweets: “Omg. Shooting at pulse. We hid in the bathroom. And we can’t find our friends.”

» 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Law enforcement and the shooter engage in three-hour standoff, with the assailant holding hostages.

Updates and pleas for help from frightened patrons, many hiding in a restroom, trapped in the club were sent out to police, friends and the world via text messages and social media.

» Around 3 a.m. Orlando Fire Department calls in the bomb squad. SWAT teams were also called in.

» 3:58 a.m. Orlando police, via Twitter, warn public to stay away from the nightclub area.

Law enforcement officials say there was “some communication” with assailant, but would not provide details. “Once the initial shots stopped we were dealing with a hostage situation,” Mina said in a press conference.

» 5 a.m. About three hours after the standoff began, Orlando police chief John Mina says the decision was made to storm the club and “rescue patrons (hiding) in a bathroom” and others still trapped inside the club in an effort to minimize loss of life. The police, Mina said, used a BearCat armored rescue vehicle to “get through a club wall.” Cops also set off a “controlled detonation” around this time to distract the assailant. After the BearCat rammed the club, the shooter opened the club’s door, according to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, and that’s when cops took aim at the shooter.

» 5:53 a.m. About an hour later the Orlando police department confirm via Twitter that the assailant, Mateen, had been killed: “Pulse Shooting: The shooter inside the club is dead.”

Florida Today, Bernard Wilchusky and Caroline Glenn contributed to this report.


Alissa Smith is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @thealissasmith or email her at AlissaS@centralfloridafuture.com.

Publication: Central Florida Future