Two Hours From Home, Ithaca Teen Receives New Lease on Life

Emily Davis had a stem-cell transplant at Strong Children's Hospital

February 06, 2002

As a lacrosse player, Emily Davis knew there was a good chance of being bruised during a game. As the bruises became more numerous, however, the Ithaca teen became concerned.

"I noticed more bruises and I was feeling tired," Emily says. "My bones were hurting and I didn't know why. At first, my parents and I just thought I had so many bruises because lacrosse is a tough sport. There's a lot of contact. But when the bruises started growing together, we thought something might be wrong."

Before results of medical tests were available, Emily got her period and experienced heavy bleeding. "We knew it wasn't normal," says Colleen Davis, Emily's mother. "As it turned out, she was hemorrhaging."

When Emily's doctor examined her, he was understandably concerned. He immediately sent the then-13-year-old to University Hospital in Syracuse via ambulance. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was incredibly weak," Colleen Davis says. "She couldn't stand. She'd lost so much blood that her veins collapsed."

That was in 1999, the year Emily was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Barely a teen-ager, she underwent months of chemotherapy, lost her hair, and missed substantial school time. Although she went into remission, recovery was fleeting.

In 2000, doctors at University Hospital in Syracuse - where she'd been diagnosed and treated for cancer - recommended a bone-marrow transplant. They also suggested it be done at Strong Children's Hospital in Rochester, home to an experienced team specially trained in pediatric bone-marrow transplants. "The doctors thought that because Strong Children's Hospital does so much work with pediatric patients, they would feel more comfortable sending her to Rochester," Colleen Davis says.

Testing revealed that two of Emily's three siblings were perfect matches for a transplant. Her eldest sibling, Eva Rose, was chosen to donate the bone marrow. After being admitted to the transplant unit at Strong Children's Hospital, Emily received high doses of chemotherapy with the intent of eradicating the leukemia. She received the transplant on March 12, 2001, and was back in her Ithaca home within a month.

"Emily's transplant was performed using blood stem cells rather than bone marrow," says John Horan, M.D., of Strong Children's Hospital. "She was enrolled in a national clinical trial designed to evaluate this new form of transplantation in children. With a bone-marrow transplant, the donor's bone-marrow cells are collected from the pelvic bones in the operating room. The cells are then infused into the patient. With technological advances in recent years, it has become possible to collect bone-marrow cells as they circulate in the blood. One of several potential advantages to this approach, is that these cells, which are also referred to as blood stem cells can be collected in much the same way that blood is donated."

Colleen Davis says her family had a good experience in Syracuse and Rochester, which helped make Emily's illness more bearable. She appreciates the way doctors in Syracuse approached Emily's case in a "calm, confident manner," and says the treatment her daughter received at Strong Children's Hospital was "phenomenal."

"At Strong Children's Hospital, we were as comfortable in that situation as we could be. We often stayed overnight in Emily's room, and made plans to stay at the nearby Ronald McDonald House," Colleen Davis says. "Everyone at the hospital answered our questions and tried to provide anything we needed. They were wonderful, not only to Emily, but to our entire family."

Emily aspires to use her outgoing personality and creativity to her advantage as she learns about colleges and career choices. She knows she can put those attributes to work as a child-life specialist, someone who works at children's hospitals, helping make kids' stays a little easier.

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