Friend wants 'more than a headstone for Chris'

Chris Betancourt, 20, has been battling leukemia since fifth grade. He and his best friend, Dillon Hill, are working through his bucket list.
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Chris Betancourt, 20, has been battling leukemia since fifth grade. He and his best friend, Dillon Hill, are working through his bucket list.
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Marcos Bretón

Connecting the dots on issues, people and news in the Sacramento region

Marcos Bretón

Pursuing a bucket list at 20, his friend wants ‘more than just a headstone for Chris’

By Marcos Bretón

mbreton@sacbee.com

December 15, 2017 06:00 AM

At 20, Chris Betancourt should be far too young to have a “bucket list” he’s rushing to experience before he dies. But when leukemia has been menacing you since fifth grade, as it has this young man, you accept that your joy has an expiration date.

That’s what Betancourt has done through months-long hospitalizations, excruciating bone marrow treatments, the mysterious suicide of his younger sister and the inescapable truth that death could come before he can have a full life as an adult.

A person could process the fate that Betancourt has been dealt in infinite ways, but he chooses to be positive and happy. He chooses to hurtle toward his uncertain future by experiencing as much of life as he can while he’s still here.

He grew up in Carmichael and graduated from Del Campo High School under the cloud of cancer. “This has made me grow up really fast,” Betancourt said. “Leukemia took away a traditional childhood that was carefree. I had to worry about blood tests and taking pills. If I got headaches I couldn’t do anything about it because Tylenol (clashed) with my medications…I could be having the time of my life and then I’d think, ‘Wait. Wait. I have cancer.’ 

Betancourt has Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, a form of cancer that afflicts the blood and bone marrow. In lay terms, CML causes leukemia cells to accumulate in bone marrow, overwhelming normal blood cells. When leukemia cells spread to the blood, they can prevent blood cells from performing normally.

You couldn’t bring germs into my hospital room because I could have died from a common cold.

Chris Betancourt

“You couldn’t bring germs into my hospital room because I could have died from a common cold,” Betancourt said.

Within the last few months, after years in remission, Betancourt was told his leukemia had grown more aggressive. He was told he needed a bone marrow transplant, or his life could end in a year or two.

His best friend Dillon Hill, 19, dropped out of UC Davis to help Betancourt formulate and pursue a bucket list befitting a young person who has cultivated a sense of whimsy to cope with his stark reality.

His list ranges from the goofy to the profound to a combination of the two: Seeing the Sequoia National Forest, going to a buffet and eating until he’s asked to leave, feeding a homeless person, singing before a live audience, flying an airplane, trying the world’s hottest pepper.

Betancourt and Hill have shared this list on social media. They have illustrated it with videos. They have organized it to be a charity that can be supported monetarily by people who are moved or amused.

One experiences a range of emotions while watching “One list, One life,” on YouTube. Betancourt and Hill are disarmingly guileless as they look into the camera and speak about Betancourt’s illness and his public campaign to share with anyone inspired to click their link and watch.

It’s sweet, until the cancer inevitably appears in a video documenting Betancourt’s latest doctor visit. This tragi-comic narrative mirrors Betancourt’s short life. One day, on Memorial Day weekend in 2009, he’s splashing around Bodega Bay with his parents and younger sister. Then the next, he’s lying motionless in the sand after falling in a heap. He’s in a hospital for 13 hours, still in his swimwear, until doctors diagnosed him with CML.

That’s when a childhood friendship between Betancourt and Hill became a profound bond, a brotherhood.

“I didn’t know what CML was,” said Hill. “But when I told my mother, she broke down crying. Then I Googled CML and learned, ‘Oh, this is cancer.’ 

Hill said he consciously decided then, after Betancourt’s fifth-grade diagnosis, that he wanted to be a true friend and the only way to do it was to go all in. “His dad would pick me and his sister up from school every day and I would go to the hospital.”

The first time was frightening. “It was like Chris was in a spaceship,” Hill said. All visitors had to be disinfected before entering Betancourt’s room.

It was terribly awkward at first. What do you say? Dillon wondered. “We didn’t have the maturity to process what was happening,” he said.

Betancourt said he didn’t want to spend his time with his friend by recounting how he had vomited a dozens times the night before.

So they escaped by playing video games. They found that playing the games transported them, at least for a few hours, outside the mournful surroundings of Betancourt’s hospital room. While gaming, Betancourt felt whole. He felt competitive. It was a welcome distraction.

The experience would later inspire the two young men to form a nonprofit called Gamer’s Gift. They would raise money for virtual reality games that they – and volunteer friends of theirs – would take to assisted living facilities. Through virtual reality, the senior citizens they visited could be transported to another place while wearing the VR glasses programmed to simulate far-off places.

Hill said he and Betancourt started Gamers Gift because they wanted to share the healing distraction of gamer technology that had helped Betancourt through his childhood hospital ordeal. But Hill said he had an additionally profound motivation to turn his friend’s ordeal into a vehicle to help others.

I wanted his name to mean something in someone else’s life.

Dillon Hill

“When the time came, I wanted there to be more than just a headstone for Chris,” Hill said. “I wanted his name to mean something in someone else’s life.”

Why? “He deserves that,” Hill said.

When they were in high school, Betancourt’s sister Kaitlyn took her own life. “She didn’t leave a note,” Betancourt said.

Before his most recent CML diagnosis, Betancourt’s mother had moved back to her native Puerto Rico to care for her mother. She was on the island when Hurricane Maria hit.

Betancourt and Hill hope their story inspires people from Latin America to visit bone marrow donor sites. It could help him find a match, prolong his life, allow him to help more people and experience more moments of joy.

Betancourt has been able to take the controls of an airplane. He wants to spend the rest of his days in the figurative clouds of personal happiness.

“You need to be enjoying every day like you should be,” Betancourt said. “If I can get more people on the donor registry I might have more time. There are so many people whose lives are waiting to be saved.”

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton