Cord Blood Saved My Daughter

On August 5, 2004, Natalie Christensen gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Ariauna. Born via c-section, Ariauna weighed exactly 6 pounds and measured 18 1/4 inches long. From the very beginning, it was evident that something was not right. An x-ray revealed a blockage, prompting immediate medical intervention and transport to a local Children's Hospital. This marked the beginning of a journey fraught with medical challenges, heartbreaks, and ultimately, hope and miracles.

Early Struggles and Surgeries

Ariauna’s medical struggles began when she was just three days old. While Natalie was recovering in another hospital, Ariauna underwent exploratory surgery. The doctors discovered she had duodenal atresia, with her intestines wrapped around her pancreas. Surgery was performed to cut the intestines, move the pancreas, and reconnect the intestines. Ariauna spent the next 14 days in the NICU, recovering and learning to eat by mouth.
At six months old, Ariauna was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, and by nine months, her parents noticed an abnormal thumb, leading to years of wearing a brace and eventually reconstructive thumb surgery at age three. Despite these early hurdles, she remained a vibrant and active child, enjoying life like any other child her age.

The Turning Point

In March 2013, when Ariauna was eight years old, she fell ill and couldn’t seem to recover. Frequent doctor visits, abnormal blood work, and a lengthy hospital stay followed. She vividly remembers the moment that changed everything: “In March 2013, I got sick. I was throwing up, missing school, and had a feeding tube placed. Surgery and abnormal blood work followed. I spent a long time in the hospital. Another doctor noticed my freckles and Café-au-lait spots (flat, hyperpigmented birthmarks) and suggested testing for Fanconi Anemia.”
On March 31, 2013, the diagnosis came: Ariauna had Fanconi Anemia, a rare genetic disorder that affects the bone marrow and is the most common inherited form of aplastic anemia. She was already in bone marrow failure and needed a transplant as soon as possible. This news was devastating for the family. Natalie recalls the moment: “The doctor told us the results were positive for Fanconi Anemia and that Ariauna was in bone marrow failure. He handed us a book and walked out. My heart was crushed.”

The Search for a Donor

Ariauna's siblings were tested as potential stem cell donors, but none were a match. The family’s insurance directed them to Minnesota, where specialists could provide the necessary care. This meant the Christensen family would be separated for about five months. The community rallied around them, organizing a carnival fundraiser to help cover expenses.
Ariauna recalls the community's support fondly: “Our community did a carnival as a fundraiser, and I was the clown. They also held a Be the Match Drive. It was heartwarming to see everyone come together.”

The Gift of Hope

Meeting Dr. McMillan, an FA specialist at the University of Minnesota, Amplatz Children’s Hospital, was a significant moment for the family. She provided the care and reassurance they needed. Ariauna describes the visit: “We traveled across the US to meet Dr. McMillan. We toured the children’s hospital and the Ronald McDonald House. They started the search for a Bone Marrow Donor, and Dr. McMillan let me pull out my feeding tube, which was the best part of the trip.”
Ariauna’s transplant journey wasn't easy, but it was filled with moments of hope and kindness. From the Child Life specialists who helped her understand her condition to the friends and family who rallied around them, every bit of support made a difference.
A 6/6 live bone marrow donor was found, and the family prepared for the transplant. However, due to an unknown sinus infection, the transplant was postponed, and the donor backed out. The family was devastated.
Then the doctor told her about a cord blood stem cell transplant giving them a renewed, yet cautious, sense of hope. Natalie had never heard of a cord blood stem cell transplant and with a touch of vulnerability she said, “We had no idea cord blood stem cells could replace a bone marrow transplant. When the doctor brought it up, I was nervous and hesitant, especially because our bone marrow donor was a perfect match and the cord blood was only a 4/6 match. After discussing with the doctors and learning that cord blood doesn't need to be a perfect match due to the newness of the cells, along with hearing about its high success rates, we decided to trust them and proceed. Looking back and seeing how well Ariauna did during the transplant, we truly believe cord blood was the best option for her tiny body. She needed those new and precious cord blood stem cells.”

Transplant and Recovery

The days leading up to the transplant were filled with extensive medical tests and procedures. Ariauna underwent five days of chemotherapy and one day of radiation before the transplant on August 20, 2013. The aftermath was grueling: mucositis, vomiting, diarrhea, fevers, and body aches. Natalie describes the difficulty of those days: “The doctors told me she would go in looking healthy but get very sick before getting better. It was heartbreaking to see her suffer. She hated taking her medicine, often leaving me in tears.”
Despite these challenges, Ariauna's resilience shone through. On day +35, she was discharged to the Ronald McDonald House, where the family stayed until day +100. Day +100 is considered a turning point in transplant recovery signifying a time when the risk of critical side effects is over. Finally, on that milestone day, they were cleared to return home to Utah. 

Adjusting to a New Normal

 Life after transplant was a new normal for Ariauna. She had to rebuild her immune system and adapt to numerous restrictions: no school, no crowds, wearing a mask, and avoiding physical activities. Home health visits for labs and blood transfusions became routine. Yet, Ariauna faced these changes with remarkable strength and optimism.
Ariauna recalls the transition: “Home health came to do labs. I needed blood transfusions and couldn’t go back to school, ride my bike or jump on the trampoline. I had a tutor at home and had to stay out of big crowds. Wearing a mask became normal.”

Looking Ahead

Ariauna’s life post-transplant has been a testament to resilience and hope. Every year on August 20th, the family celebrates her transplant anniversary, also known as her re-birthday, a reminder of the life-giving cord blood donation. Because of this selfless act, Ariauna has celebrated 10 more birthdays, attended high school dances, graduated, and even started a career as a Medical Assistant.
She still dreams of becoming a nurse, working in pediatrics to help other children, getting married, and starting her own family. While the threat of cancer remains—a risk 600% higher for her—Ariauna lives each day with gratitude and determination.
Ariauna reflects on her future: “I am now 10 years post-transplant. Every year on August 20th, we celebrate the life I was given thanks to cord blood. I have been able to celebrate 10 more birthdays, go to a high school dance, get my driver’s license, graduate from high school, and go on several cruises with my family. I have an amazing job as a Medical Assistant and still hope to go to nursing school, work in pediatrics, get married, and have a family.”

Natalie’s Message to Expectant Parents

The Christensen family's journey with Fanconi Anemia has been one of unimaginable challenges, but also of incredible miracles. Ariauna’s story is a testament to the power of hope that cord blood brings. Each year, as they mark the anniversary of her transplant, they are reminded of the miracle that saved her life and the bright future that lies ahead.
The power of cord blood stem cells cannot be overstated. This tiny, often discarded source of stem cells has the potential to save lives, as it did for Ariauna. Cord blood transplants are a revolutionary medical procedure that offers hope where there once was none. For families like the Christensens, cord blood was a beacon of hope in their darkest hour. It provided Ariauna with a second chance at life and has enabled her to pursue dreams that once seemed impossible.
Cord blood stem cells are crucial in treating a variety of life-threatening conditions, including blood cancers, immune deficiencies, and genetic disorders like Fanconi Anemia.
Natalie concludes with this heartfelt advice, “if your family history has any of the diseases cord blood can treat, it is important to consider banking your baby’s stem cells. I had four children of my own and knew nothing about banking or donating cord blood. Now, knowing that cord blood saved my daughter’s life, I tell expectant parents all the time about cord blood banking and donation. We have no idea what the future holds for any of us. Cord blood could help save your own child’s life or it could save another child’s life. Please, from the bottom of my heart, do not let that miracle cord blood go to waste."

Final Thoughts

The journey is far from over, but with the support of family, friends, and the medical community, the Christensens face the future with hope and determination. They are forever grateful to the cord blood donor and to everyone who has been part of their journey. Together, they continue to believe in the possibility of miracles.
For those considering donating cord blood, remember that this simple act of kindness can give someone a second chance at life. Ariauna’s story is a powerful reminder of the life-saving potential of cord blood and the enduring impact it can have on individuals and their families. Through awareness and advocacy, we can ensure that more lives are saved, and more families are given the gift of hope.

Last Updated on: 07/01/2024 by Diane Paradise