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Meet Michael, the hero of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Station 16

Firefighters shows dearly loved pediatric cancer patient support

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – "I saw, I came, I conquered, or should I say, I saw, I conquered, I came. They say the chico on fire and he no liar," sings Miami rapper Pitbull in "Fireball," a song that gets Michael "fired up" every time. 

Play Pitbull's "El Taxi" --  "Is just fine why? Because she makes wine. Everything is just fine why? Because she makes wine"  --  and it is show time for the 8-year-old cancer patient. He starts moving to the beat.

"It's good for me," he tells his mom. 

When his hair started to fall off -- because to stop cancer cells from multiplying, doctors deliver agents that cause DNA damage -- Michael saw an opportunity. He put on aviator sunglasses and his black blazer.  

"He wanted to look like Pitbull. We got him an iPod touch and he has been playing his favorite songs,"  said Michael's mother, Christine Key Benitez, 43. 

The music brings him comfort, which he has been in need of for months. He has been in and out of doctors' offices since a family friend spotted a small lump in his neck in August.

Doctors started a process of trial and error that ended with a biopsy. The shocking diagnosis: Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that begins in a type of white blood cell that is fundamental to the immune system. 

Key Benitez said she and her husband, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Mark John Benitez, are committed to keeping a positive attitude.   

The pediatric treatment comes with tough side effects. The first Food and Drug Administration-approved chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1949 was a nitrogen mustard.

Michael, who is a green belt in karate, has a surgically implanted device that makes learning martial arts or going swimming risky. No more horseplay with his brothers. 

"We told each of the children individually," Key Benitez said. "We told them we were learning like them, so we all wrote down our questions, and we were really prepared when we went to the doctor."  

Except for 5-year-old sister Lulu, Michael's brothers, 10-year-old Matthew and Mark John, 14, have cut Michael some slack. Grace, 12, is his favorite.

"She wants to be with him all the time," Key Benitez said.

Michael is home schooled, and Lulu requires more attention. 

"She has special needs," Key Benitez said. "She has a chromosome disorder and developmental delays." 

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Felipe Lay said Benitez didn't tell the firefighters he supervises at Station 16 in Homestead about his family's struggle with pediatric cancer. But the firefighters found out anyway and what they have done has overcome the Benitez family with gratitude.

"We are definitely a family at the station. We are away from our families when we work, so our kids come and go," Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. Ricardo Centeno, 42, a father of two, said. "We all know Michael and we wanted to show solidarity."

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The firefighters have showered him with love. When Michael saw the before-and-after pictures of his dad and a group of firefighters, who shaved their heads, he gasped, his mother said. 

"He looked at one picture and looked at the other. He was so surprised," Key Benitez said. "He was smiling. My husband doesn't cry but I could tell it really moved him."

The firefighters didn't stop there. Michael turned eight on Thursday, so they set up a Friday night birthday party. There was a cake, balloons, colorful decorations and the station's children turned out to celebrate.

"We all pitched in and bought him an Xbox and some games," Centeno said. "It's his first video game console." 

Michael is scheduled to have his next chemotherapy -- and hopefully his last -- at The Cancer Center at Nicklaus Children's Hospital on Nov. 9. Depending on his response, his pediatric medical oncologist and hematologist will determine the next phase of treatment.  

"We have been eyeing that bell," Key Benitez said about a tradition in cancer centers to ring a bell after the completion of chemotherapy. "We do try to think ahead."

His dad made a promise: After a doctor removes the port to deliver the drugs and his skin heals, the family is going to jump in the pool with him.

"I have faith. Michael has moved people to pray, to bring us plates of food, to surround our family with love," Key Benitez said. "I have to be positive and see the goodness that has come out of all of this. In January or February, we are going to be jumping in that pool together."

Michael also spends time thinking about his plans for the future. He tells his mom he will either become a firefighter like his dad, or he will be an entertainer like Pitbull. 


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