RU student saves sister with bone marrow transplant

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When freshman David Barcalow’s sister, Molly, was diagnosed with leukemia last year, the only treatment available was a bone-marrow transplant. Despite only a 20 percent chance of being a match, Davis was fortunately matched as a viable donor for his sister, where he was able to give her one of the most special gifts of all: the chance to recover from a terrible illness and overcome its effects.

Just before beginning his freshman year at Radford University, Davis was visiting Boston with his father. While there, he received word from his mother that his sister had been taken to the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Davis’ mother, Christy, logged the experience in Molly’s Caring Bridge site, caringbridge.org/MollyBarcalow. “At the beginning of June 2014 Molly was experiencing pains in her hip and shoulder. The hip pain continued. Molly just couldn’t seem to get any relief. We went to several doctors and even had an X-ray.  Nothing appeared to be wrong… Finally after 8 days in the hospital it was determined Molly had Leukemia,” she said.

Molly was diagnosed with hypo-diploid acute lymphomic leukemia. This particular type of cancer is not easily treated with traditional chemotherapy. It requires a bone marrow transplant from a matched donor to adequately treat it. Until recently, this disease was only treated with chemotherapy; however, recent medical research has developed a treatment via a bone marrow transplant that is much more effective.

After the diagnosis, the members of Molly’s family were tested in order to determine if there were any matches for a transplant. In many cases, people with this form of leukemia must seek a donor through the bone marrow bank database, where matches will be determined and the marrow shipped to the hospital in which the procedure will be done. There are several drawbacks to this, including extended transportation time and the risk that the marrow will not accept the person’s body.

Luckily, Davis’ bone marrow was a match for his sister. When he heard this news, he didn’t hesitate to prepare for the procedure that might ultimately save his sister’s life. Davis was happy but not surprised that he was the match for his sister. When Davis learned that he was a match for his sister, he immediately volunteered to be the donor in an operation that could save his sister’s health and life.

 

“Luckily I was a match. I kind of had a feeling it might be me. I was happy to be the one to donate bone marrow to her. I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “It was an automatic yes. The reward is the fact that my sister gets to live,” he said

The procedure was scheduled for Dec. 7, right after Davis’ first week of finals.

“The night before, I ended up not sleeping at all because I was kind of nervous.”

Davis went to the Children’s National Medical Center for the procedure, where 800 ccs of bone marrow was extracted from his hip. Doctors isolated T-cells from the marrow, which were used to help remove Molly’s leukemia cells. The T-cell procedure is a part of a research study of which Molly is a part. After being extracted, the T-cells were “trained” to fight off viruses and seek out leukemia cells. After three months, they were transmitted to Molly.

Despite the severity of the operation, Davis says that the physical toll was minor, especially in comparison to the benefits of the procedure.

“I think the first few days my back was pretty sore. About a week later I honestly felt perfectly fine. It was like it never even really happened.

One of the biggest benefits of Davis being a donor match was the speed in which the marrow was able to be transplanted. The fact that they are siblings also yielded a better chance of the transplant to take without complication. Molly stayed in the hospital for nearly two months after the procedure. Eventually, she was allowed to return to her family’s home in Dale City, Virginia. The transplant took successfully, and Molly began to show signs of improvement.

“She gradually started getting better. I got back for spring breaks, and she was almost a completely different person. She’d gotten significantly better. She was chatty…. and in way better spirits,” he said.

 

The benefits of donating bone marrow can mean the difference between life and death. In Davis’ case, it meant a chance to help his sister heal from a terrible illness. The experience has inspired him to remain open to the possibility of donating to another person in the future.

“I could get a call from anytime saying that someone needs your bone marrow, could you do the procedure. I would say yes. I know that if I was in that situation, I would want them to do it for me,” he said.

Anyone interested in entering the bone marrow database can register at bethematch.org. Minorities in particular are encouraged to register, since diseases like sickle-cell anemia can be treated with a bone marrow transplant.

“We’ve met so many kids with sickle-cell anemia who have been waiting for years for a match

Christy was troubled by the time it took to properly diagnose Molly’s symptoms. After visiting several doctors and receiving a false diagnosis of scoliosis and other doctors stating that nothing was wrong, doctors eventually made the correct diagnosis of leukemia. The confusion and lack of initial certainty has led her to encourage a more transparent line of communication between doctors, their patients and their families.

“I want doctors to listen to the kids and listen to the moms. You talk to moms whose child has cancer, and it’s the same story. They went from doctor to doctor to doctor trying to convince a doctor that there was something wrong,” she said.

Currently, Molly is being monitored twice a year to ensure that no leukemia cells return.

“After December 8, she is considered done. She’ll go for once a year checkups,” Christy said.

She is now able to return to one of her favorite hobbies, dance. She is also excited to begin high school this September. She feels that the relationship between her and her brother has become closer since the procedure. One interesting side-effect of bone marrow transplants is that the receiver of the marrow sometimes develops the donors taste for food. Molly has recently developed her brother’s taste for BBQ ribs. Thankfully, her taste for chocolate has not been affected.

“I think we definitely have a different relationship than most siblings, so that’s kind of cool,” said Molly.