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He spent his birthday as a patient, and his wife and family members showered Jose Moreno with love from near and far.
By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jose Moreno’s face lights up as he talks about the support of family and friends. On his recent 46th birthday he was resting in a bed in IU Health’s Simon Cancer Center but the smile never left his face.
His focus was on his wife, Gina, who had been with him since his diagnosis. His eyes twinkled as he talked about the love they share. She was instrumental in planning many of the surprises that brightened his day. First there was a a dozen friends and family members who braved the cold to stand on the roof of the parking garage across the street.
From a hospital window, Jose, who is nicknamed “Alfredo” could see them waving and holding up a birthday banner. The group also sang to him by Face Time. Then there was the surprise of a mini bakery cake brought to him by one of his nurses.
As Jose told the story of what brought him to IU Health, nurse Christopher Stewart checked in on him. The Morenos also had some hospital visitors from their hometown of Lyons, Ind. The community is located in Green County about 90 miles southwest of Indianapolis. There are fewer than 800 residents and Jose and Gina Morena know many of them. They’ve lived there almost as long as they’ve been married – going on 25 years.
It was a shock to both of them when Jose was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. They came to IU Health on January 21st where Jose was in the care of Dr. Seyed Hamid Sayar, who specializes in hematology. On his birthday, Jose had completed several rounds of chemotherapy and was waiting to go home. While he was a patient at IU Health, his wife spent nights at a nearby apartment. The Fair Haven Foundation provided the complimentary housing.
For the Morenos, every act of kindness helped connect them to their community back home.
“We are so close to our friends and family. It’s hard to be away,” said Jose. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, he moved to Bloomfield, Ind. in 1994. The Morenos’ love story began four years later.
“He was a waiter at a Mexican restaurant. I came in to eat and that was all there was,” said Gina. “He didn’t speak any English so we spent a lot of time sitting at a table practicing.” As the years went by, the couple bought a house in Lyons and had three children, ages 24, 19, and 15. They also have a grandchild.
Jose followed his dreams and opened a Mexican restaurant called “Cinco de Mayo.”
“I’ve done a little bit of everything from busing and waiting, to cooking and washing dishes,” said Jose. The restaurant menu includes familiar dishes including enchiladas, burritos, and chimichangas. Mexican beer and Margaritas are also part of the offering. “My favorite is roasted pollo and anything spicy,” said Jose. His wife teases him about the assorted bottles of hot sauce in his hospital room.
“The restaurant is kind of a gathering place for our community,” said Gina. She’s wearing an orange plaid shirt – orange is the color representing leukemia. And on her husband’s special day, there were other surprises by their community. More than 100 people joined a Facebook page, “Wear Orange for Alfredo’s birthday.” Pictures were posted of friends wearing orange shirts - “Together we are Moreno Strong.” Groups and individuals shared messages, “Feliz cumpleanos,” “Hugs and Prayers,” and “Keep fighting you’re not alone.”
The surprises continued throughout his hospital stay. Cards and letters arrived – including several handmade notes from local school children. Gina pointed out one with a drawing and a message: “Nacho best day.” The day after Jose’s birthday one friend made the trip to give Gina a new hairstyle. Jose grinned when she walked into his hospital room – her shoulder length locks cut into a neat bob.
“I love everything about her,” he said. It was the only time his eyes began to tear up. “She’s very supportive. Sometimes I want to cry to see the things she’s been through. I know how tired she is. I tell her she can go home but she won’t leave. I pray to God and the Virgin of Guadalupe every day giving thanks for my wife and family. That’s what keeps me strong,” he said.
Gina responds: “He’s always been my rock and now I’m thankful to be his.”
The birthday celebration continued into the week. He was discharged from the hospital and entered his restaurant to a huge “Welcome Home Party.” There was a white cake with blue frosting, orange balloons, a bouquet of orange roses, and a banner with orange handprints signed by friends and family members.
A mask hid Jose’s smile, but his reaction was clear. He was thrilled to be back in his little community with his family and friends.