"He barely knew me but he accepted me," hospital psychologist Jeanelle Folbrecht says of leukemia patient Dominick

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated September 15, 2016 11:50 AM
Sam Comen

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Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 9, Dominick had been battling the aggressive cancer for four years when a relapse brought him to California’s City of Hope in September 2014 at 13 years old.

Doctors wanted to do a bone marrow transplant, but because Dominick’s family wasn’t in the picture, the procedure couldn’t happen because there was nobody to provide aftercare for him.

With such an uncertain fate, it’s unsurprising he received a referral to see Jeanelle Folbrecht, a psychologist at City of Hope.

“My job is to visit patients and assess depression or anxiety that may have arisen as part of the [treatment],” Folbrecht, 49, tells PEOPLE.

But Jeanelle couldn’t assess Dominick because there was no one to give consent to see him, so she began looking into his situation by talking to others who had met him.

“Nobody could tell me he was having symptoms of depression or anxiety,” she says, “and I thought, ‘Wow. This kid doesn’t need a psychologist; this kid needs a mom.’ ”

Already mom to two sons (Kyle, 17, and Kevin, 14) with husband Eric, 50, a computer-programming consultant, Jeanelle had wanted to adopt for some time. But after encountering a few barriers, she decided to leave it up to fate.

“We felt like if we’re going to adopt, a kid is going to have to drop in to our laps,” she says.

So when Dominick crossed her path, it felt meant to be. But even though the idea felt right emotionally, she had to make sure it was right ethically. After confirming with the California Board of Psychology that she could adopt Dominick because he had never been her patient, she met him for the first time.

“When I first met him, he was this kind of quiet very reserved kid and he was getting chemo,” she recalls. “I couldn’t tell how much of that was because of the chemo or because he didn’t have a family.”

After their initial meeting, she asked Dominick’s social worker to run the adoption by him, so that he could say no without feeling uncomfortable. His answer was a resounding, “Yes!”

“I remember after that I asked him, ‘Dominick, did someone come talk to you?’ ” she says. “And he looked at me with this big grin and said, ‘Yes! You’re going to be my mom!’ I think that was the first time I ever saw him grin.”

“It was just such a precious moment,” she continues. “He was excited because he got to have a mom. He barely knew me, but he accepted me.”

Soon after that, the entire Folbrecht family was visiting Dominick in the hospital for movie nights and games of football. “I let them win,” Dominick, now 15, says with a smile.

Then, in October 2015, Dominick was finally able to leave the hospital and move in to his new Glendora, California, home – complete with a mom, a dad, two brothers, two dogs and a bunk bed. “The bunk bed was the worst,” Dominick and Kevin agree.

It took a few weeks for Dominick to start to open up, but soon enough, family dinners were louder than ever. “The noise factor went up a ton,” Jeanelle says.

Dominick and Kevin, both outgoing, sports-obsessed and just one year apart in age, became inseparable. Dominick also bonded with Kyle, the family’s sole introvert, through their shared love of video games. “I think since Dominick came home, Kyle’s been more open and talkative,” says Eric.

Just as Dominick was adjusting to life with a new family, he received life-changing news. The search for a bone marrow donor, which began when Dominick moved in with the Folbrechts in October, was finally complete. A near-perfect match, Vanessa Brobbey, was found through the Be the Match donor registry. Brobbey, a 20-year-old college student in Toronto, stepped up to make the life-saving donation.

Dominick went back into the hospital to prepare for the procedure, and his new family went into panic mode. “We had just gotten to know him and we had to start thinking, ‘What if we lose him?’ ” Eric says.

After the transplant, the Folbrechts remained by Dominick’s bedside. “We ended up being there 24/7,” says Jeanelle. Within months, Dominick was feeling well enough to return home and soon after that, he was healthy enough to join a flag football team.

Today, Dominick is a freshman in high school and leukemia-free. While he is thankful for his new life and new family, Jeanelle says they are the lucky ones.

“When it comes to life he just keeps going and moving and smiling,” she says. “He’s amazing.”