Alex ‘Smiles’ Arrieta, succumbs to leukemia at 10 years old

Alex and his elementary school principal, Gretchen Keefner, battled cancer together.

Beloved Hilton Head Island 10-year-old Alex ‘Smiles’ Arrieta lost his battle with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) early Wednesday morning.

Arrieta’s family posted this message to FaceBook on Wednesday morning: “I was going to wait to post until Brandon and Caroline asked me to but I see messages all over. Alex is no longer suffering, around 2 a.m. this morning, Caroline’s mom welcomed him to Heaven. He is now a happy, healthy boy! He beat cancer! He is free! We his family are beyond heartbroken.”

NEWS 3 has been following the story since Arrieta was diagnosed in February 2015. His family worked tirelessly to raise awareness for childhood cancer, and the community generously donated to help with his medical bills.

Arrieta went into remission after treatments, but the cancer came back in January 2016. On Sunday, the family says they celebrated Arrieta’s beating cancer, but treatments had also wiped-out all blood cells. He had suffered a collapsed lung, and the treatments put a strain on his heart.

Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Arts Principal Gretchen Keefner got the call at 2:44 a.m. from Alex’s older brother, Brandon. Keefner says she was in disbelief, at first.

“I don’t think it was until late yesterday that I even allowed myself to believe that Alex wasn’t going to be able to get through that doorway to be well,” Keefner says.

Once the news spread to staff, students, and parents, the PTO decorated the school entrance in orange, the color for leukemia. There were orange balloons, streamers, flowers, even a soccer ball for the former athlete.

“There needed to be a presence of Alex, and so they decided to wrap our poles in the orange which is the color for AML,” Keefner says.

Keefner’s keepsakes like a necklace Arrieta gave her reminded her of him.

“I battled cancer along with Alex there, it is supposed to be somewhat of a healing stone but also the prayers. They were huge prayer warriors for me and for Alex and there’s lots of people out in the community that were prayer warriors for us,” she says.

“That’s probably the teary part. That’s probably the hardest part. I feel like I probably have a pretty good sense of myself, and my whole spiritual part of my life as well. That’s probably the one argument that I’m still battling in my head, like why him, not me, you know?” she says.

Arrieta’s aunt, Andrea Arrieta Hayes, last spoke with him on Sunday. She was with the family when he passed on Wednesday morning.

“I went to visit him on Sunday and he would kind of open his eyes and he smiled at me a little…I mean he knew that I was there, and I kept telling him,” Hayes says.

Now, she hopes his story can make a difference in more research, a cure for childhood cancer.

“These are children who have not had a chance to live a full life but yet, so little is going into researching cures for them,” she says.

The family has not released funeral arrangements yet. There had been a memorial planned for Arrieta set for Thursday night that has been cancelled, for a bigger memorial to take place in the future.


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