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Galt’s Kari Salinas pulls no punches in her fight against leukemia

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Posted: Saturday, June 15, 2013 12:00 am

Punching bags and exercise balls line the walls of Morgan’s Martial Arts, a small training center in Lodi’s industrial section. Inside on the matted floor, Kari Salinas connects combos with her bright-pink boxing gloves.

A hook. A jab. An uppercut. A cross.

Each punch lands with a thud against instructor Terry Morgan’s mitts.

Tuesday’s session is more than a workout, though. Every swing, every minute in the gym is a victory unrelated to martial arts.

Kari has unique battle scars.

Beads of sweat pour down her bald scalp, which was once covered with long black hair.

Her right arm, slender but toned, carries a catheter through which blood is drawn and chemotherapy drugs enter.

She has been a warrior all her life — roughhousing with her older brother Chris as a toddler, jumping into mixed martial arts two years ago and wrestling against boys as a Galt High School senior.

But a year after graduation, she is fighting for her life.

On April 1, Kari was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most dangerous and aggressive form of blood cancer.

She was not expected to reach her 19th birthday on June 7.

At detection, she was given four weeks to live.

“I just felt so powerless,” she recalled. “It was something I couldn’t control.”

After two whirlwind months, she is, against all odds, regaining that control. Her cancer has been in remission since May. The fight is not over, but Salinas is turning the tide — and inspiring others — every day.

“She’s very rare,” said Morgan, who trains fighters twice Kari’s size. “I always thought I was tough. But when I watch her, I think, ‘That’s really tough.’”

An inconceivable diagnosis

“I’m too young,” Kari said.

Dr. Elias Kiwan, her oncologist at Sutter Medical Group in Sacramento, had delivered the grim news on April 1.

“I know you’re young,” he told his new patient.

The past month had brought health problems she could not explain.

Fever. Fatigue. Depression. Pain. Infection.

Kari knew something was wrong; she was sweating nervously in Kiwan’s office. But such a diagnosis was inconceivable.

The bombshell brought a wave of confusion and fear, but it had to be absorbed immediately. There was no time for a second opinion, Kiwan told Kari and her parents, Gale and Tony; inaction would lead to her death within two weeks.

Kari had never felt so vulnerable. The disease was a genetic defect. It could not be inherited or predicted. And even after treatment, there was no certainty.

“I didn’t want to hear it,” she recalled. “For a half-hour, I bawled my eyes out.”

Her parents were blindsided, as well. Before this ordeal, they could count Kari’s lifetime doctor visits on one hand. Suddenly, they faced the prospect of losing their daughter.

Her father started out in denial.

“I believed it, but I wasn’t accepting it,” Tony said, speaking softly but sternly. “Those are two different things to me. I believe it, but I do not accept it. I just would not.”

But it was very real.

With tragic irony, Kari’s endless energy in and outside of sports may have made the symptoms less noticeable. After graduating from Galt, she continued MMA training while juggling two jobs in Lodi, at Round Table Pizza and Tin Roof BBQ. She was also reaching out to military recruiters, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her older brother, who had served six years the army.

When she started feeling tired and unmotivated at work, Kari thought it was the stress from a recent breakup and the military recruitment process.

But her health problems grew more glaring.

While attending a spring track meet, the former sprinter and basketball player was winded by a walk across the bleachers. A jog around the block or a game of Frisbee at Lodi Lake also left her short of breath.

Sunday, March 24 brought new troubles. Kari felt sharp knee pain while cleaning her room — “like someone put a saw through them.”

When she visited a nurse practitioner at Sutter Medical Group in Elk Grove the next day, her temperature showed a fever of 101.

She then got her blood drawn, with frightening results:

Kari’s level of hemoglobin, a blood protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body’s tissues, had dropped to a near-fatal level. A trip to the emergency room and a blood transfusion immediately followed.

Kari’s primary physician referred her to Dr. Kiwan’s Sacramento clinic, which the family visited for the first time on March 28. There, she underwent extensive blood tests.

Four days later came the harrowing verdict.

“It’s weird when you go there and think it’s just a normal visit,” Gale said. “We thought maybe she’d get a shot for vitamin deficiency. You never think it’s going to be the worst thing possible.”

A prolonged stay never crossed their minds, but it rapidly became the reality.

Kari was admitted to Sutter General Hospital right away. She began her first round of chemo that night.

Tony remembers standing at the medical center, with Kari in a wheelchair, and preparing to take her across the skyway to the general hospital for treatment.

“I didn’t want to cross that bridge. ... I didn’t know what we were walking into,” he said. “That’s when it triggered, like, ‘What are you doing?’ You have to do this. You have to face it. You have to.”

And his daughter did, the best way she knew how. She fought.

My life is only on hold, was Kari’s mantra.

My life is only on hold, not ending.

Astonishing resilience

When Dr. Kiwan visited Kari’s hospital bed during treatment, he was amazed by the wall decorations: photos of her in action, hitting the mitts at Lodi’s gym.

“I didn’t know anything about it. I was really surprised,” he said. “I didn’t expect this little body could fight.”

Kiwan saw one type of combat, in the way she endured chemotherapy.

The cell-killing drugs can bring no shortage of complications, from sickness due to a depressed immune system to severe damage to the heart, liver and kidneys.

But his patient’s resilience was astonishing.

Kari experienced the common nausea. She was slowed by fatigue and had to stay two weeks in the hospital to get her strength back. By mid-April, she had shaved her hair completely.

Yet, she never suffered the worst of the side effects.

That, coupled with her speed of remission, was “unheard of,” Kiwan said.

After a single round of treatment, she was cancer-free. Before starting a second cycle on May 6, Kari’s cancer levels dropped from over 60 percent to zero. Normal recoveries can take up to two months.

“Everything started working out,” Kari said. “I had a chance.”

She always had tenacity.

Kari first showcased it as a toddler, refusing to be restrained by a high chair at dinner. (“It was too confining for her,” Gale said. “There was no time to sit still.”)

During the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Kari was so excited by the sprinters on television that she raced outside and imitated the runners leaving the blocks.

Never one to slow down, she never backed down, either.

Chris Salinas, now 27, remembers wrestling his sister when he was 11 and she was 4. Even then, she was no pushover. Chris recalls one summer when he broke Kari’s kiddie pool and tried to pass off the blame on her.

“But she wasn’t going to take (any) guff,” he said. “I was older and bigger, but she wasn’t going to have it.”

In high school Kari ran track and shot hoops for the Warriors, but longed for the intensity of wrestling. For three years, she begged her parents. For three years, they said no. So the summer 2011, before her senior year, she sought out Morgan’s Martial Arts in Lodi.

It quickly became an obsession.

In a matter of months, Kari had taken every class available — kickboxing, boxing, jiu-jitsu, judo — and started sparring with the likes of Demitry Moore, a Lodi tournament champion who was over 40 pounds heavier.

“She made it her life. If I could get some of the guys who weighed 230 pounds to have Kari’s attitude, I could have a bunch of world champions,” Morgan said. “She’s got that attitude that most people spend their whole lives trying to get.”

Kari finally got the green light to wrestle her senior year.competing in the 113-pound class, she took on boys just about every match, always overmatched and never victorious — not that she let it show.

“I just had to deal with it,” she said.

That toughness earned her respect and admiration from opponents.

“They told me, ‘I’ve never fought a guy like Kari,’” said Morgan, who watched her compete. “She just never quit.”

Her newest battle was drastically different, but the resolve from wrestling and martial arts showed.

She knew what it was like to endure punishment and bounce back up, time after time.

To be outmatched and respond.

To be physically drained, but never mentally finished.

On the front of her pink boxing gloves, Kari wrote out “Philippians 4:13” in large print.

“I can do everything through him who gives me strength,” the Bible verse reads. She never lost faith, just like she never lost strength.

“That’s the person she has always been,” said Ashley Stubbs, a friend and former Galt track teammate. “It’s just showing that much more now.”

The next test

The next step of Kari’s fight is underway.

On Thursday, she began a week of extra-intensive chemo — 10 times more than her prior dosage — in preparation for a bone marrow transplant on June 20. The procedure will give her new blood-forming stem cells to replace the ones killed by treatment.

Her older brother, Chris, is the donor.

Living up in Washington, his world had been turned upside down by Kari’s illness. Outside of daily phone calls, he could do nothing to help and it agonized him.

Now, he has a chance.

The chances of finding a bone marrow match in siblings is about 25 percent. An unsuccessful test meant Kari would have to wait months to find a donor.

But after submitting a sample the second week of April, Chris found out he was a perfect match.

Kari called it a blessing.

Her brother called it an opportunity.

“I can’t put it into words,” he said, while on his way to Galt on Tuesday. “I’m so excited to go down and do something, and to not be a bystander. I can’t cure cancer, but this I can put my hands on.”

It’s a crucial step, but also a difficult one.

Kari will stay in the hospital for 30 days following the procedure. With heavy pre-transplant chemo destroying her immune system, the risk of infection or illness are high.

For her, the transplant is yet another test.

Another obstacle in a two-month blur full of them.

But she’s learned to respond to every single one.

“You have to say positive,” Kari said, “even when it seems that there’s no hope.”

Contact reporter Ed Yevelev at edy@lodinews.com.

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