View Full Version : Bellingham girl gets life-saving gift from her brother

04-25-2011, 02:32 PM
Bellingham girl gets life-saving gift from her brotherA chance at life, a new bond
BELLINGHAM - Emma Morrison sat on her hospital bed at Seattle Children's. Her parents were next to her. Her brother Owen, too. They all held hands and waited for healthy stem cells taken from Owen's bone marrow to flow from a bag through a line and into her body.

Once Owen's cells found their way into Emma's bones, the hope was that her body would accept them and again start producing blood cells.

"It was a remarkable day," mom Jill Smith said of that transplant day on Dec. 21.

Owen Morrison, now 10, donated his bone marrow to his sister, 12-year-old Emma Morrison, who has been diagnosed with aplastic anemia. The disease occurs when a person's bone marrow stops making enough red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets for the body. Stem cells from his healthy bone marrow were used to help save his sister.
For the 12-year-old Bellingham girl, who was diagnosed with life-threatening aplastic anemia in November, the bone marrow transplant from her then 9-year-old brother was her best chance at a cure.

Twenty days after that, Emma and her family saw the first indications the transplant was working.

"We all celebrated that," Jill said.

Hope, celebration, smiles. They had been in short supply since November, when bruises her parents thought were the usual bumps of childhood turned into something much more sinister - within days.


Aplastic anemia is rare. About 3 out of 1 million people in the U.S. get the disease each year, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.

The signs started to show just before Emma's 12th birthday, when she alerted her parents to numerous bruises on her elbows, hipbone and legs.

"The bruises I could excuse because I'm not necessarily what most people call graceful," Emma said, adding the bruises didn't cause pain.

But a few days later, in math class at Geneva Elementary School, she saw what looked like a rash and went to the school nurse. It turned out to be petechiae, tiny little bruises that occur when small capillaries close to the skin burst.

She couldn't excuse them. "The petechiae was weird."

After school, Emma was taken to a doctor. Her blood was drawn for tests. The next day, Nov. 5, the day of her birthday party, her parents were told to rush her to Seattle Children's.

After a number of tests and three days later, her parents were told it was aplastic anemia. At first, they were happy the diagnosis wasn't leukemia.

"Mostly, we were both relieved that it wasn't cancer. There's such an emotional weight behind that word," said Jill, a 43-year-old physical therapist.

Then they learned more.

Aplastic anemia occurs when bone marrow stops making enough blood cells - red, white and platelets - to replenish the body's supply.

Bone marrow produces all of the body's blood cells, and each has a vital function.

Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. White blood cells help fight off infection. Platelets clump together to block cuts and tears in blood vessels to stop bleeding.

The disease can be moderate, severe or very severe, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.

First, Emma's parents were told she had the severe variety. Two weeks later, they were told it was very severe when tests found only fat cells in her marrow.

"There was nothing else," said dad Mitchell Morrison, a 47-year-old history teacher at Ferndale High School.

Shaken, Mitchell said he locked up his despair and worry in a "black box." But he feared losing his sweet, giving daughter, a girl who could talk about Justin Bieber and Kierkegaard.

Jill and Mitchell heard the words "bone marrow failure." They were told she needed a bone marrow transplant from a matching donor.


Her brother was her best bet, because he would have the closest match to her DNA.

Even then, only 1 in 4 siblings is a match, according to Jill. If Owen wasn't a match, Emma would have had to go on a national bone marrow registry and hope someone on the list would be a donor candidate.

Blood was drawn from Owen for testing Nov. 18. They were told eight days later that he was a perfect match.

"It felt like a breeze blowing through," Mitchell said. "Jill and I collapsed into each other, 'We've got a chance.'"

Owen, now 10, remembers being excited at the news.

"It's pretty awesome," he said, but he admitted to feeling nervous at the thought of two needles going into his body to harvest his marrow.

Still, her son "stepped up bravely and with all of his heart and intent made this wonderful contribution," Jill said.

On the day of the transplant in December, they all held hands as the hospital staff sang "Happy transplant day to you."

"Most beautiful moment I've ever experienced," Jill said, adding it was another birthday for all of the family.

In the ensuing days, when the number of white blood cells in Emma's blood started to go up, they were the first signs that the transplant had worked.

For Jill, the bond between her two children is now in their blood.

"She and her brother, the connection between them has always been incredibly strong," Jill said. "It's even stronger now. I'm still amazed in thinking her blood is exactly like Owen's. The DNA in her blood cells are his."


Nearly 100 days after her transplant, Emma went home.

After what seemed like strange dawdling on her father's part - a leisurely meal in Marysville, a stop at a rest area after he drank a Dr. Pepper, a shopping trip to Haggen - the family finally turned down Victor Street in the Columbia Neighborhood.

It was 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 27. The street was lined with Emma's friends - wearing T-shirts that read "Team Emma. Rock the transplant" - and neighbors.

"It felt like a family," Mitchell said, "not just us but a whole group of people. We know we haven't been alone in all this."

Emma stepped out of the family's car. Her hair thinned because of the chemotherapy she had to undergo before the transplant, she was nevertheless all smiles. People cheered and clapped.

"It was really awesome to see everybody there," Emma said. "There were people in trees and people spread out."

Weeks later, they're adjusting to having Emma, their brave Emma, home again.

"Emma is an inspiration to us," Jill said.

Tests show her blood cell counts look good. She's recovering, but Emma will not be considered cured until next year.

She can't be around large crowds or sick people because of her suppressed immune system. Before she can go back to school - the original date is January but Jill hopes they'll get the green light for fall so Emma can be there for the re-opening of Whatcom Middle School - she'll have to be immunized again because her system was wiped out.

"It's a long road," Mitchell said.

For now, they celebrate the joys of everyday life. Going for bicycle rides. Watching Emma with her dog Willow. Just having Emma home.

"Normal is the new awesome," Mitchell said.

Read more: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2011/04/24/1981433/a-sisters-illness-a-brothers-gift.html#ixzz1KZL0QGIL