Each year, 20,000 people in the United States stand in need of blood or bone marrow transplantation. These patients have leukemia, lymphoma or other illnesses that can often be successfully treated with this procedure.
Children's of Alabama is the only pediatric bone marrow transplant facility in Alabama. In the past 13-years, more than 180 children have received life-saving transplants at the hospital.
Transplantation treatment is not always the first line of defense for most childhood cancers and illnesses. There are certain cases when emergency transplants are needed right away to ensure survival. But there usually has to be donor with a match.
We spoke with the father of a young girl whose life was saved thanks to a decision her parents made when she was born.
"She overall was a healthy, individual four year old, there were some skin indicators that led into bruising and other indicators, but overall we didn't think she was of poor health," said Blaine House.
House said his daughter Maisie, who was four at the time, was not tired or complaining of any problems. But her skin bruised easily. Much too easily. House and his wife made an appointment with their pediatrician, which led to another appointment at Children's of Alabama.
"They had us an appointment here at the oncology center to start running tests," said House
Maisie was diagnosed with a severe blood condition.
"Severe aplastic anemia, which is a failure of all three blood counts. Your bone marrow fails. It ends the production of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets."
The condition causes the immune system to shut down. In Alabama, just five to ten children are diagnosed each year. House says the news was overwhelming. But a decision he and his wife made at the time of their daughter's birth proved critical.
"At the time we had saved Maisie's umbilical cord from her birth," he said.
Doctor Fred Goldman says it was nothing short of a miracle. Goldman performed a cord blood transplant on Maisie. It's a term he says is now interchangeable with other common terms for the procedure.
"We interchange the word now cord blood, perf blood stem cell, bone marrow transplant, they all mean the same thing because the cells that are in those different places are the baby cells that are able to make the cells of the bone marrow," said Goldman.
Here's how does transplantation works:
First a patient undergoes chemotherapy to wipe out the bad cells. Doctor Goldman says the new transplant cells are smart. They know exactly where to go once they are injected into the blood stream.
"They make their way into the bone marrow where they set up house. And it takes several weeks to months for those cells to actually start making functional red blood cells and white blood cells and platelets," said Goldman.
But not every parent has made the decision Maisie's did. They're left to depend on others for help. And that's when Goldman is forced to go on a time-sensitive search for a marrow match.
"The best chances are a brother or a sister. But the best chances of a brother or sister being a match is only one in four. So then you have to look outside of the family. So we then look into this registry called the national marrow donor program. But unfortunately if you're a minority, the likelihood of finding a donor is small."
Doctor Goldman says there is a good rule of thumb for those who wish to help.
"People who might donate blood on a routine basis might also consider being on the registry. And that is simply a swab of your cheek. And if you enroll then you're adding to the mix and improving the chances of a child finding a donor for their disease."
Doctor Goldman is also working to get a cord blood bank in Birmingham. He says it's vital. If marrow donations are not a perfect match, then he could move on to the cord blood bank, which does not have to be a perfect match to perform a transplant.
For more information visit https://www.childrensal.org/