Eliza, her mother, vividly remembers the day of the initial diagnosis — July 23, 2014. She’d noticed that Veronica bruised easily and that her lips were pale. She had also begun complaining of being cold and tired. The family even took Veronica out of the day care she had attended out of concern about possible abuse. But the bruising continued. Worried, Eliza asked her grandmother to look at her daughter.
“She said, ‘You need to take her to the hospital right away.’” Eliza recalls. “So I took her to the pediatric center. The nurse there took her blood, and as soon as she saw it she knew something was wrong.” That was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They went straight to the hospital, where doctors confirmed that Veronica had leukemia. From there, the 2-year-old was helicoptered to Philadelphia, where she began chemotherapy treatment.
Veronica began to improve. She went into remission that fall, with no signs of leukemia in her blood. The family had hope that she was on the road to health. But at a regular checkup in September 2015, they learned that the leukemia was back.
Bone marrow transplant for relapsed leukemia
With the relapse, the family turned to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), where plans were made for a blood or marrow transplant. The family met at CHOP with the team of doctors and nurses who would do the procedure and care for Veronica during her recovery. They explained what was involved and what to expect. In Veronica’s case, she would be receiving blood making stem cells from an unrelated donor with a close genetic match. The transplant would involve an infusion of the donor’s blood making stem cells following high doses of chemotherapy to destroy Veronica’s own bone marrow. The unrelated donor’s cells were specially processed to decrease the risk of a severe complication that can occur after a transplant.
The unrelated donor transplant took place on December 18. “It wasn’t surgery,” Eliza explains. “Just a special kind of blood infusion. Veronica could move around her room like a normal child. She just couldn’t leave the room, and visitors had to take precautions — washing their hands and wearing masks.” Until the donor cells began to grow, Veronica’s immune system was very weak, and it would remain weak for months during the recovery process.
“I stayed in the room with her while she was in the Hospital,” Eliza recalls. “The doctors and nurses were really great, both with Veronica and with me, reassuring me that she was progressing well. Volunteers came in and did art and craft activities. Veronica was amazing too. She didn’t cry. She played the whole time. She was her usual happy self through it all.”
Veronica was released from the CHOP after three weeks, but the family needed to stay nearby for regular tests. “Stephanie, the Hospital social worker was wonderful,” Eliza says. “She helped us get funding to stay at a hotel near the Hospital, which we could never have afforded otherwise.” The family stayed there for another two months. Veronica remained in the room during the day, but her parents would sometimes take her for walks in the hallway at night, when fewer people were around, wearing a mask to reduce the risk of catching an airborne illness.
Since April, Veronica and her family have been back home, still taking care to control crowded places that could increase the risk of infection. Every month they return to CHOP for follow-up tests, visits Veronica looks forward to. “When she walks in, she’s like ‘I’m here!’” Eliza says, with a laugh. She loves the play room and the arts and crafts activities, and especially the treasure chest where she gets to pick out a toy to keep.
“Going through this was scary. There were many times I couldn’t sleep. She’s healthy now, but I still worry. She tells me, ‘Mom, I’m OK.’ It’s a miracle. It really is. What the doctors do is a miracle.”
Veronica doesn’t share her mother’s worries. She’s an optimistic, delightful child who is ready for whatever life brings her next — and she very much hopes that includes a kitten.