Blood Brothers for Life: A Family's Story
When Julie and Jonathan Henderson found out that their two-year old son Nicolas had T-cell lymphoma they were devastated. They had just found out that Julie was pregnant, and what was supposed to be an exciting time preparing for the new baby, turned into months of doctor visits, hospital stays and chemotherapy. After Nicolas' chemotherapy failed to work, the Henderson's doctor tried a relatively new transplant procedure using stem cells taken from the umbilical cord blood of their newborn baby, Nathaniel.
They worked with Cryo-Cell International, Inc., the world's first private cord blood bank and fastest growing Umbilical Cord Blood Stem Cell banking company, to process, test and store Nathaniel's umbilical cord blood. Today, Nicolas is a happy, energetic four-year-old who is in remission. He and his baby brother Nathaniel share a special bond.
In May 2001 we noticed that Nicolas had a swollen lymph node, but at first we weren't worried-he didn't have a fever, his energy was high and his spirits were good. But after a couple of weeks, the lymph node was still swollen and we took Nicolas to the doctor. They thought it was probably just infected. The tests came back negative. They said it might be allergies. It wasn't.
In the meantime we got some wonderful news. In June, we found out we were going to have another baby who was due the following March. What a thrill. Little did we know what this new baby would come to mean to our family.
A few weeks later our doctor biopsied Nicolas' swollen lymph node because he said that would take less time than allergy tests. Of course, we immediately asked if they thought Nicolas had cancer, but they assured us they did not suspect that because his blood tests had been good and he wasn't showing any symptoms. A couple of days later we called for the test results and were told they weren't ready yet. Later we realized the doctors already knew, but hadn't wanted to tell us the news over the phone.
July 19, 2001
We got the biopsy results on Thursday, July 19th, 2001 — one of many dates that will forever stick in our memories. When we walked into the doctor's office, we still had no idea that Nicolas might have cancer. The doctor walked in with a somber look on his face and said, "it's not good." He told us Nicolas was suffering from T-cell lymphoma, and he had made an appointment for us with an oncologist for the next day. At that point we knew this was serious.
The next day the oncologist answered our questions, took some tests and decided to immediately admit Nicolas to the hospital and begin chemotherapy. At this point they also began talking to us about saving the unborn baby's umbilical cord blood through a bank like Cryo-Cell.
The doctors explained that we would only need the transplant if the chemotherapy didn't work. Then, if the boys were a match they could give Nicolas a transplant using the stem cells from the baby's umbilical cord blood. They said this would be a better option than a bone marrow transplant and had a higher success rate. We kept the idea of storing the cord blood in the back of our minds, but to be honest, we did not think we would ever need it — we were sure the chemo would work.
Despite the horrific news, there was some encouragement. Initially, our oncologist thought he would find the cancer in Nicolas's bone marrow but tests showed that his central nervous system was clear of any signs of cancer and his bone marrow was only 11 percent cancerous. Throughout this time reports were optimistic, the treatments were going well and Nicolas' blood was strong.
What we hadn't considered were all the day-to-day things we'd have to deal with: infections, fevers, keeping things sterile and traveling back and forth from the hospital. The upside was that Nicolas' spirits stayed high. He played in the house like normal, had lots of energy and watched his favorite cartoons. This made it much easier on us.
Nicolas completed the six-week induction phase of his intended two-year chemotherapy treatment. The treatment was traumatic for Nicolas and, truthfully, for all of us. His chemo became stronger and he threw up often. He started to get very upset about having to go back to the hospital. But the good news, really the great news, was that the doctors did a complete reevaluation of his condition and the cancer was undetectable anywhere in Nicolas' body. They let him come home two days early.
Late September 2001
September 21st was another big day for us. The doctors told us that Nicolas was in clinical remission. This was an expected milestone in his battle with cancer, but we were thankful nonetheless. It was already more than what some patients with this disease have gotten. At this stage, Nicolas continued to be in good spirits. He had more hair loss and some weight loss, but for the most part was not acting sick or tired.
December 27, 2001
Again, a date we can't forget. We received the devastating news that the doctor found cancer in Nicolas' spinal fluid. Our doctor was very distressed by the fact that he was relapsing so soon and during such an intense time of chemo. They took Nicolas off the chemo because it failed to work. We were told that the only thing left to do was attempt a stem cell transplant, and the best chance for a perfect match would be in the umbilical cord blood of Nicolas' unborn sibling.
Sam Sharf, the transplant coordinator at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida (where Nicolas was referred for transplant), recommended that we use Cryo-Cell to store the umbilical cord blood. When we contacted Cryo-Cell they explained that it was a very simple process. We'd simply fill out some paperwork and Cryo-Cell would send us the cord blood kit that we'd take to the hospital on the day of the delivery. Then the doctors would collect the umbilical cord blood immediately following the birth and send it to Cryo-Cell for processing, testing and storing. We went forward with all the preparations and soon all there was left to do was pray for a healthy, easy delivery and a match for Nicolas.
Despite the setback, there was some positive news. The cancer was local and manageable, so this was not considered a total relapse. We knew the best bet was still the stem cell transplant and prayed the baby would be a perfect match.
February 18, 2002
Our new baby boy was delivered via C-section at 1:19 p.m. He came in at 6 pounds, 9 ounces, and was 20 inches long. We'd had trouble deciding on a name, but just before he was born we decided on Nathaniel, which means "given by God," in expectation of what his life would bring with it. Nathaniel was a good boy from the start — no crying.
The doctor got a great deal of blood from Nathaniel's umbilical cord and sent it directly to Cryo-Cell for processing, testing and storing. It would take two weeks to find out if Nathaniel was a match. Nathaniel's cord blood would remain at Cryo-Cell, while we waited for the results.
The emotions that day were unbelievable. During the birth of Nathaniel, I saw them remove the bag of the stem cells. I looked at that bag and thought, there is my son's life. They carried that little bag of cord blood away and packaged it up, and I literally felt like I was looking at my son's life. I felt a miracle in the making, and it was wonderful.
March 30, 2002
We were eating at the Olive Garden when we got the call. As soon as the phone rang, we intuitively knew it was going to be about the stem cells. The tests found that the boys were a perfect match. We immediately got up from the table and began calling all our family and friends. It was the best feeling in the world.
Around the same time, we had another setback. We found out that Nicolas had an infection that vegetated in his heart and formed a clot. There was a mass attached to his heart valve, and we thought were actually headed toward open-heart surgery. This could have caused incredible complications in the transplant process, but after a few weeks the clot was gone. There was absolutely no explanation for this.
Once the heart clot disappeared we were ready to begin preparing for the transplant. Nicolas had six days of cranial spinal radiation, three days total body irradiation, two days of heavy chemo and one day of rest. This was the protocol to destroy the cancerous cells and make room for Nathaniel's good cells.
April 30, 2002
Transplant day. Ironically, this day was somewhat anticlimactic. The blood had been stored since February at Cryo-Cell, and they had delivered it to All Children's Hospital a week before the transplant. The transplant itself was very much like a blood transfusion and only took a few minutes. After the transplant we celebrated by shooting silly string in the hospital room and at the nurses. Nicolas enjoyed that.
Beginning of May
After the transplant Nicolas began feeling sick from the heavy regime of chemotherapy and radiation that he underwent a week before the transplant. Again, his hair started falling out and throughout this time there were some ups and downs-Nicolas spiked a fever and he had trouble retaining fluids. But on May 13th he started showing signs of engraftment, which means that Nathaniel's transplanted stem cells were accepted by Nicolas, and his white cell count started doubling. This was day 13 post-transplant and was pretty much unheard of because this does not typically happen until day 21. On day 21 they took out Nicolas' feeding tube, and on day 24 he was discharged to the Ronald McDonald House.
Eight Months Post Transplant
Nicolas has been cancer-free since the transplant, and his prognosis is excellent. He's an intelligent, energetic little boy who loves to play with rescue heroes. We've been very open with him about his cancer and Nathaniel's role in Nicolas' health, and he says a prayer thanking God for Nathaniel every night.
We have a lot of friends who are pregnant and have recently had babies, and we tell them all about the benefits of banking their umbilical cord blood through Cryo-Cell. Even if there is no history of illness, we recommend it. No one in our family had any history of childhood cancer, no childhood illnesses. If it weren't for the option of cord blood stem cell banking, we might not have been able to tell our story today.