Whitehead fits definition of miracle|
Monday, June 04, 2012
By Tyler Kolesar Staff Writer
PHILIPSBURG - Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines the word "miracle" as "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs". In April, then six-year-old Emily Whitehead was given a 1 in 1,000 chance of surviving her battle with leukemia. On Friday, Whitehead and her parents Tom and Kari made their return to their home in Philipsburg, proving that "miracles" do indeed happen.
After noticing alarming symptoms, Emily Whitehead went to the doctor on May 28, 2010. It was on this date that she was diagnosed with standard-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Doctors told Emily and family that she would undergo 26 months of treatment, but gave a positive outlook toward her future.
"At that time they (doctors) told us it was the most curable kind of cancer for kids, and a 90-some percent chance she would go through this one time and then not have cancer again," said Tom Whitehead, Emily's father. "It's rare to relapse when you're just at standard-risk in the beginning."
Unfortunately, this wasn't the case. In October 2011, Emily relapsed while still in treatment. Tom said their oncologist at Hershey Medical Center at that time said he hadn't seen anyone with her kind of cancer relapse in 10 years. Once Emily relapsed, she received heavier chemotherapy to try to get her into another remission, and then to receive a bone marrow transplant. They had found a donor (as Emily doesn't have any siblings) and were ready for the next step.
"When we were getting ready to go to bone marrow transplant, she relapsed again," Tom said. "When you have more cancer in there, they won't send you to a transplant because it won't work. At that point, Hershey Medical Center was kind of out of options for her, and we transferred down to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. We had already gone there the first time she relapsed so we could get a second opinion."
Tom said at CHOP, doctors had a new experimental study opening where you take your own T-cells out of your white blood cells, grow them in the lab for six weeks, and train the T-cells in the lab on how to kill the cancer.
Doctors had tried this method on three people, and Emily would be the first child in the world to receive the treatment.
"They had tried this on three adults, and it made the adults sick," said Tom. "But the adults had no other options either and all of them had a dramatic response to it where they were (now) in remission."
Doctors at CHOP then did an experiment on Emily's cells and said her cells would indeed grow, making her a candidate for the process. Tom said the doctors stated Emily's cells responded the best out of the four prior candidates. But Emily would soon take a turn for the worse.
"They put them (T-cells) back in her, and she had a really bad response when the cells went back in, and nearly passed away at the end of April," Tom said. "She ended up on a ventilator and couldn't breathe for herself."
Doctors told the Whiteheads on two different occasions this April that Emily had a very slim chance of surviving the night. Tom said the family prayed and asked for everyone else to pray, which at this point, the Whiteheads had thousands of people in their corner praying for Emily.
While Emily was severely ill, Tom said doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, which is right across from CHOP, studied Emily's genetics to try to figure out what went wrong. They then came up with a couple suggestions on other medicines that might turn around her critical condition. Tom said they tried that and Emily had a "pretty good response". But at this point, many doctors felt Emily was past the point of recovery.
"When her lungs were collapsing, she had some organ failure," said Tom. "Her kidneys were not working right."
Doctors told the Whiteheads the situation was grim, but didn't rule out a recovery because they said one in 1,000 people can come back from this. And that's exactly what Emily did: she came back.
"She came back strong," said Tom. "They told us that it was ‘medically hard to explain' how she recovered as quick as she did. We had half a dozen doctors use the word ‘miraculous' because I told them she had not respond like other kids did anywhere through her treatment."
Throughout the process, Emily has never had a lack of support, whether it be from her family or from the thousands in the region who have followed her story via the CaringBridge website (www.caringbridge.org/visit/emilywhitehead) or through the Facebook page "Prayers for Emily Whitehead, a 6-year old fighting leukemia". The Facebook page alone now has more than 15,000 people who have "liked" the page.
Tom told the doctors to please not give up on his daughter, as they "have a whole army of people out there praying for her," to which Tom said the doctors said they'd take whatever they can get because they would need every ounce of help possible.
"Within two days after her lungs were collapsed on x-rays, they were showing x-rays of her re-inflated lungs, and telling the younger doctors they were training, "This is why you never give up on a kid's chance to come back. Look at Emily,'" said Tom.
Another hurdle to overcome for Emily was her T-cells count. Tom said during Emily's critical care part, doctors had to give her steroids to try to kill the T-cells because doctors said they were overwhelming Emily's body, which was the main reason for her condition. The situation was a bit of a double-edged sword, as the T-cells were needed to fight the cancer, yet they originally rejected Emily's body. But another "miracle" was about to take place.
"In the end, she made it through the critical care part, and the steroids did not kill the cancer-fighting T-cells," Tom said.
Emily is now cancer free and is in remission. Tom said however doctors will not use the word "cured" until Emily has made it five years in remission.
In the meantime, Emily will see oncologist doctor Jim Powell out of the Mount Nittany Physician's Group in State College, who previously worked in Hershey, to make sure she is still on the right path to recovery.
"He's been with us the whole way through our journey and does as much chemotherapy and treatment that he can in State College," Tom said.
Tom said Emily will visit Powell in June. In mid-July, it will be three months from the time Emily had her T-cells re-injected in her, and doctors will check her bone marrow then to make sure there's no more cancer cells. However, they already have a good sign that her bone marrow should be okay.
"Every indication with the blood work that we're getting every week, they can still see the cancer-fighting T-cells in her bloodstream, which usually means it's in her bone marrow also," said Tom. "And they don't see any cancer cells in her blood. And then her bone marrow that we just got done one month after showed no cancer at all. They did do an MRD (Minimal Residual Disease) test, which checks up to a billion cells. And they didn't see any cancer cells. They'll do that again three months out to make sure those cancer-fighting cells are still working."
On Friday, Emily and her parents finally returned home to Philipsburg after spending months at CHOP. Hundreds of people gathered to welcome Emily home, as she was led into town by fire trucks from the local departments. Getting back to some semblance of normalcy will now be on the list for Tom and Kari Whitehead, as they know their daughter is truly a living "miracle."