Ashley Antunez spent her 13th birthday last month in a hospital — her cancer having returned following years in remission.
Soon after, the Costa Mesa-based Southern California Hospice Foundation began planning a birthday celebration for her, knowing it might be one of her last.
Ashley was diagnosed in 2011 with acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. She received chemotherapy until the end of 2012, then was in remission until the cancer returned last July.
Since then, she's had other procedures and treatments that have made her hair fall out and parts of her body to become swollen, but her cancer has spread to the point that it is not curable.
On Thursday morning, the foundation arranged for Ashley, her 4-year-old brother, Alex, and their parents, Martha Aguirre and Daniel Antunez, to be picked up by a limousine at their home in Montclair in San Bernardino County.
The limo took them to Casey's Cupcakes in Irvine for a party hosted by Casey Reinhardt, the business's owner and a winner of the Food Network competition series "Cupcake Wars," one of Ashley's favorite TV shows because of her love of cooking and baking.
"Being sick can be very isolating," said foundation Executive Director Michelle Wulfestieg. "Television becomes a window to the world, and connecting our patients to TV personalities gives them a sense of comfort and a moment to live a dream."
The foundation also arranged for Ashley and her family to have dinner and an overnight stay Thursday at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach.
Ashley arrived at the cupcake shop wearing a bandana over her bare head and a face mask.
Reinhardt greeted her as she slowly got out of the limo and into her wheelchair. The outline of Ashley's smile was visible through her mask.
Reinhardt, Ashley and her family filed into the shop's party room, where cupcakes waited to be decorated with icing, chocolate shavings and rainbow sprinkles. Reinhardt adjusted a tiara so it would fit around the bandana covering Ashley's head.
As the cupcake party commenced, Reinhardt asked Ashley about the treats she likes to cook and bake. She learned that Ashley's favorite food is shrimp, which the Island Hotel's executive chef, David Man, whipped up for Ashley and her family that evening.
Upon arriving at the hotel Thursday afternoon, Ashley was welcomed by the executive staff. Her room was decorated with red jewels, a reference to her middle name, Ruby — the reason her father calls her his "jewel."
On June 2, Ashley began receiving home care from Companion Health Group, an organization that provides hospice, home health and palliative care services to patients in Southern California, Arizona and Texas.
Companion's chief executive, Michael Uranga, founded the Southern California Hospice Foundation in 2002 to help patients with needs that hospice benefits do not cover, such as food, transportation, utility bills and final wishes.
In recent years, the foundation has fulfilled wishes such as a 12-year-old boy with bone cancer meeting the Angels baseball team and a 94-year-old with breast cancer riding 20 laps in a race car on a speedway.
The foundation covers the expenses of the wishes through donations, fundraisers and grants, Wulfestieg said.
"The end of life is tough," she said. "But we're here to make it a little easier."
Alex Chan, firstname.lastname@example.org