MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — In her glowing pink dress and tiara, Maria Jose Martinez looked the part of the excited princess celebrating her 15th birthday as friends and family gathered for her coming-out party.
She and her father entered the ballroom of the Managua hotel in grand style, between two rows of cadets from the Nicaraguan Military Academy standing at attention with bayonets raised. The thin, sad-eyed girl later let out a thrilled laugh as she danced with one of the green-uniformed soldiers.
Just hours before, Maria Jose had woken up in a different world, with no pink dress and no long, gold-streaked hair. She had sat up in bed with her bald pate and T-shirt pale in the morning sun, one of dozens of girls receiving treatment for leukemia at the La Mascota hospital in the capital of Managua.
Maria Jose had entered the hospital in May suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, meaning her body produced too many white blood cells. Chemotherapy and other treatment often left her weak and in pain, and her weight had fallen to only 84 pounds (38 kilograms).
Despite her illness, Maria Jose, along with some two dozen other girls, had dressed up, left their hospital rooms and taken part in the late-August quinceanera party marking their birthdays. An association of parents with cancer-stricken children had organized the party.
"I wanted to cry because she looked so happy despite her illness," said Maria Jose's mother Petrona Guido.
Maria Jose herself acknowledged that her leukemia had slowed her down. She hadn't wanted to stop dancing with one of the cadets after just two songs.
"That was because I felt sick, otherwise I would have swirled him in the air at least three times," Maria Jose said afterward.
Associated Press photographer Esteban Felix followed Maria Jose through the day's preparations and celebrations, as she weakly embraced her twin sister Maria Mercedes from her hospital bed and later returned by wheelchair to her room while still in party dress.
Felix, who's based in Nicaragua, returned with Maria Jose two days later to her tropical hometown of La Cuchilla about 115 miles (185 kilometers) north of the capital. A crowd of well-wishers, some playing guitar, mandolin and violin, tearfully welcomed Maria Jose as she approached.
About two weeks later, Maria Jose donned another pink dress and cloth roses again for a quinceanera held during Mass at a local chapel. With her thin, brown arms protruding from her dress, she cried with head bowed.
By nightfall, her body had reached a limit, and she cried in pain as two male relatives helped her walk back home.
A day later, she was back at Hospital Mascota for more treatment. Her quinceaneras had passed. Symbolically, her childhood had ended, and her life as a woman had begun.
For Maria Jose, the hard fight against cancer also lay ahead.
But she said she was happy.
"I thank God that I'm here, that I'm alive."