Health & Medicine

Sister duo brings cheer to young cancer patients at UC Davis

Kristine and Brianna Tesauro’s laughter rang clearly amid the drone of medical machinery and the shuffling of nurses in the UC Davis pediatric cancer clinic.

As more than a dozen kids received chemotherapy, the sister duo pushed a cart full of balloons, foam rockets, greeting cards and, most important, a stack of their signature Catch Some Air T-shirts.

They met Jazmin Perez, a 2-year-old with kidney cancer, and handed her a purple koala T-shirt sporting their company’s hot air balloon logo. Then they shot off a few rockets, blew up a balloon and drew a goofy giraffe on it.

The girls’ grandpa used the same phrase – “catch some air” – to encourage them during difficult times, said 25-year-old Brianna Tesauro. So when her younger sister Kristine was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2015, it became something of a motto for staying positive during surgical procedures, bouts of chemo and long days of painful recovery.

That was when Kristine, a lifelong doodler, also began drumming up animal puns – “happy as a hippo,” “save the drama for your llama” – and sketches to match. Her older sister became Kristine’s one-woman cheerleader and brought a pile of blank T-shirts into the hospital room. A small business was born.

Since December, Brianna has been scanning her sisters’ drawings and getting them printed on tees and tanks, which they sell online for $20 to $25. They’ve been working to make and sell enough T-shirts to be able to donate a few to kids receiving chemotherapy, which they did for the first time Friday, March 4.

“They’re going through something so rough, that sometimes it really is hard to stay positive and stay active,” said Kristine Tesauro, 21. “So (the shirt) is just a reminder that you can still be happy through all this stuff and have good moments.”

As sales continue and Kristine’s health improves, the sisters hope to launch more activities at the UC Davis cancer clinic and other pediatric centers in Northern California.

The Tesauros live in Redding, but they drive down to the infusion clinic once a month for Kristine’s maintenance treatment. The tags on the shirts describe their business roles perfectly: Kristine being “the sister kicking leukemia’s butt” and Brianna “the sister who does everything else.”

“Going through it, you’re pretty much stuck in a chair, getting pumped full of whatever treatment you’re getting,” said Brianna Tesauro. “It just seems important to bring some life and movement and stuff that will make you smile.”

Ellen Meuchel, a child life specialist at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, said the Tesauro sisters bring a much-needed energy to the clinic. The kids there are often pulled away from their friends and routines and forced to sit for several boring, dispiriting hours.

“The great thing about events like these is they bring a sense of normalcy to a medical space,” Meuchel said of the sisters’ visit. “It doesn’t feel like an infusion clinic – it feels like we’re hanging out. They’re totally on board with the whole mission of making this less scary.”

In the far-off future, the sisters dream of opening a retreat center for young cancer patients, a safe, sanitary place to just have fun and let loose, Brianna Tesauro said. In their dreams, they also see themselves opening a movie theater, dart gun war rooms, go-carts and even a facility for hot air balloons.

But for now they’re focused on selling T-shirts and promoting their cause on social media, all to “help kids with cancer stay happy when they feel crappy,” as their business cards read.

“The kids inspire me,” Kristine Tesauro said. “They’re so little, and they’re going through this super intense thing. I’m going through it now and I know what it’s like, and they’re doing awesome.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Tuesday to clarify that the sisters were visiting the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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