Edu was watching television when something on the news attracted his attention. The presenter was talking about Mike Wilson, the British man who jumped from the roof of his house dressed as Spiderman to surprise his son for this fifth birthday. Little Jayden was suffering from brain cancer which ended his life a month later, at Christmas in 2014. That video, which went viral, gave Edu the idea: “I'm going to take Spiderman to hospitals in Spain,” he decided.
So he set to work. First, he had to find the costume. “I wanted a good one. I thought that would be easy, but it wasn't. I finally found one abroad for 600 euros. My mother laughed; she said they wouldn't let me into the hospitals, dressed like that,” says Edu 'Balboa' (his profile name on Facebook), who borrowed the name of the legendary character portrayed by Sylvester Stallone because “he was a fighter.”
His real name is Eduardo Rodríguez González, and he was born and brought up in the Carranque district of Malaga. On working days, Edu puts on his National Police uniform and goes out on patrol. He passed his police exams when he was 19 and, after training at the Academy in Ávila, he joined the Public Safety force in Madrid.
On his days off and holidays, he dresses in the costume of the superhero, fills his car with petrol (at his own expense) and goes off to different hospitals to visit children who are suffering from cancer. “I've been to hospitals in Madrid, Seville, Cadiz, Jerez, Murcia, Malaga... I go wherever I'm called,” he explains.
But the superhero who lies beneath the police uniform was born long before Superman. “I was always affected by things,” says Edu, who is 28 now.
“When I was little, when I used to see famous people visiting children with cancer in hospital, I used to ask myself why they couldn't be like any other child, at home in their house. It had a real impact on me, seeing them with no hair, wearing a mask, and it seemed so unfair.”
It all started six years ago. Once he had finished his training and been awarded his police badge, Edu decided the time had come to do something.
“I had more spare time by then, and I joined an association as a volunteer. When I had time off, I used to come to Malaga and spend three hours a week visiting children in hospital,” he says.
He recalls what it was like to walk onto the Oncology ward for the first time. “I felt very nervous. I saw a little boy running outside and going under a table. He wanted to play hide-and-seek. I decided to forget protocol, and got under the table with him,” he says.
That boy was Sergio, aged seven, from La Línea de la Concepción, and he has been cured. Edu always tries to keeps in contact with the families and children he visits.
The story of Lolo, an eight-year-old boy from Madrid who had spent three years undergoing treatment for an unusual type of leukemia, resembles that of the film 'La vita è bella' (1997), directed by Roberto Benigni, in which Guido Orefice, an Italian Jew, used his imagination to protect his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.
Manuel, like Guido, turned the hell of the hospital into a game for his son Lolo, making him believe that he was there to find out what type of superhero he was. That, said Manuel, was why he had to have so many tests.
When they put the reservoir in place to give Lolo the treatment, his father told him he was Ironman.
When they did transufsions, Manuel said they were injecting him with spider venom which held the superpowers of Spiderman.
When they sedated him, it was to give him the 'adamantium' which Wolverine's body also contains.
And when they gave him the chemotherapy, his parents said the orange colour of the drugs was because they were magic potions.
However, in the world they created for their son, there was a need for a flesh-and-blood superhero, and that superhero was Edu.
“One day Mariano (who was on the reception desk) told me that Spiderman was coming, and that's how I met Edu. Lolo was in a bad mood that day, but meeting Spiderman had a very positive effect on him. They became great friends and I thought it was fantastic,” says Manuel.
Afterwards, it was Lolo who surprised Edu: he hid in the wardrobe and when the policeman went into the room, he suddenly appeared in a Spiderman costume of his own. “They are a really great family,” says Edu.
Lolo has now been released from the Niño Jesús hospital in Madrid, where he had spent two years. The results of his latest check up, earlier this month, were “good”.
Facebook and Twitter
“They see me as a big brother,” says Edu, who has a Facebook page and a Twitter profile with the name 'spidermanylossuperpelones', where he receives requests for visits and keeps in contact with the families. “I normally make one trip a week,” he explains.
He pays for everything himself and receives no assistance. “I won't accept money from anybody. I never have. Once, a mother rang me and asked how much it cost. It's free. I would cut my hand off rather than take a single euro from parents who are going through something like this,” he insists.
He says he has lost count of the children who have found a smile when they saw him dressed as Spiderman. “It's impossible to know, because when I go to a hospital I visit everyone in the ward and it can be 20 or 25 patients. But I keep in contact with most of the families who ring me because they want me to surprise their children. Every one leaves you with a special memory, because they are all unique and special.”
There are some that he hasn't lost count of: the ones who are no longer with us.
“There have been 29,” says Edu. “It's very hard, because you become friends with their parents and they seem like younger brothers or sisters to me, too. You are with them in that final stage and help them to die so that at least they are not afraid. That is something truly important. We need more people who are prepared to do that. It isn't easy. If a parent comes and asks you whether their son is going to die, you want to say “no, everything's going to be fine, you'll see.” But you can't lie to them, because they'll only blame you later. You have to be honest and say, “Look, I don't know.”
How can you go through that pain over and over again? How do you cope with it?
Sometimes you go home feeling really depressed and you lose faith in everything. “How can this happen?” you think. “Why should a three-year-old die?” But the children make everything easier because they never stop being children. And you can't let yourself be overwhelmed by it. If you do about one, you can't help the next one. When you do feel like that, though, it's important to know how to get out of it, because otherwise you could end up suffering from depression and having to take medication.
Spiderman is only skin deep. An easy photo. “People know I get dressed up in a costume to visit the hospitals, but that is only looking on the surface. This isn't like Carnival in Cadiz. About 99 per cent of my work is done without the costume. Every time I have a day off, I go to the hospital as Edu, not as Spiderman.”
Over time, he has developed a very personal theory about how death can be the antidote to living with a daily hell.
“When you spend time doing this, you understand that death as we know it doesn't exist. We all come here for something and we all have to leave for a reason. And we will never know exactly what that is until the film ends for us and we read the words 'The End'. I think these children are like soldiers. They come to fulfil a mission, which may be to meet their parents, and discover the important things in life, or maybe they will be the reason for two brothers who haven't spoken for years to reunite. Like soldiers, they suffer, and then afterwards they go home.”
Do you believe that you have superpowers?
We all have them. The strongest ones are love and determination. A person who is determined, even if they have no arms and legs, can't be stopped by anybody. Those are my superpowers, but there's nothing special about me. I have them, and so does everyone who wants to do what I do. What I do know is that this is my path. Everyone has their place in life, and this is mine.
When we were photographing Spiderman, Eduardo and the police officer, three people in one skin, for this article, outside the Materno hospital, a mother arrived at the door of the Emergency Department with two small children. “Look Mummy, it's Edu!” exclaimed the little ones almost in unison, as they ran to give him a hug.