Henrietta Leukemia Survivor Will Meet Her ‘Angel on Earth’

November 18, 2003

"Words can't possibly describe the immense amount of gratitude I feel towards her. I am alive, able to be here for my family and to raise my four children."

How do you thank someone for saving your life – twice?  Henrietta’s Christine Pettrone is pondering that question as she prepares to meet the woman who did just that.

“Words can't possibly describe the immense amount of gratitude I feel towards her.  I am alive, able to be here for my family and to raise my four children,” says Pettrone, 41.  “I call her my angel on earth."

That angel is Sandra Scott-Burnside of Collinsville, Okla.  She donated bone marrow to put Pettrone’s leukemia into remission in 2001.  A year later, when Pettrone had an aggressive relapse, she donated white blood cells to help Pettrone fight the relapse and a dangerous lung infection.  It’s very rare for a patient to need a donation twice. 

Pettrone and Scott-Burnside will meet Saturday, Nov. 22, at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at Strong Memorial Hospital, in part to mark National Marrow Awareness Month.

Difficult Diagnosis

Pettrone was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a common form of the blood cancer, in July 2000. She endured aggressive treatment and extended hospitalizations over the next several months.

“Over an 18-month period, I was in the hospital for about 11 of them,” Pettrone says, regretting the time away from her husband, David, and children, who ranged in age from 4 to 14 at the time.  Support from family, friends, schools and co-workers kept the household running.

Eight months of chemotherapy did not destroy the leukemia cells in her blood.  A bone marrow transplant was needed.

Bone marrow produces blood components, including white blood cells, which are the mainstay of the body’s immune system.  Marrow transplants are used to treat people when their marrow stops producing normal blood cells.

“The challenge was that her disease was resistant to standard treatment for AML,” says Jane Liesveld, M.D., clinical director of the Samuel E. Durand Bone Marrow Transplant Center at the Wilmot Cancer Center, the only transplant program in the region.

Doctors searched the National Marrow Donor Program database for a match, since Pettrone’s only sibling wouldn’t work. They struck gold with Scott-Burnside.

Giving Life -- Twice

Scott-Burnside had joined the marrow registry more than five years before she was contacted as a possible match.  She’d forgotten all about it.

When the call came, it was a hectic time for Scott-Burnside.  She was working as a nurse and going to graduate school.

“I was heading right into finals and I was going crazy,” says Scott-Burnside. “I figured that if it was meant to be, it would happen.”

Persistence and patience by the Red Cross paid off as they completed all of the tests around her chaotic schedule. When results showed that she was a perfect match, Scott-Burnside agreed to make the life-saving donation. 

“We had lost my father to cancer and during that two-year battle I realized I’d have done anything to help save him,” says Scott-Burnside, 31. “Knowing that someone else could be saved with my bone marrow, I had to do it.”

Doctors removed marrow from her pelvic bone and hand-delivered it to Strong Memorial Hospital.  There, Pettrone received the life-saving marrow through a procedure similar to a blood transfusion.

Rules surrounding marrow donations require anonymity for both the donor and recipient, for a year after the donation.  The NMDP provides minimal information to the donor and recipient through the process.

Scott-Burnside had asked about the patient before she donated her marrow. 

“I knew that it was someone who wasn’t much older than I am with four children.  Yeah, I had reservations. But when I thought about this woman who has lots of potential and so many years ahead, and her children to raise, I had to do it,” Scott-Burnside says.

The May 15, 2001, transplant offered brief success.  Nearly six months later, Pettrone relapsed.  Tests showed the leukemia cells were still present and another round of chemotherapy didn’t work.

A dangerous lung infection set in and Pettrone’s immune system wasn’t strong enough to fight it off.  “We didn’t have any other alternative but to approach her donor again and ask if she’d be willing to help again,” Liesveld says.

The hematologists wanted to transplant some of Scott-Burnside’s leukocytes – leukemia-killing white cells – to jump-start Pettrone’s immune system.  The Oklahoma “angel” agreed, again and the second transplant was completed in January 2002.

Less than a half-percent of all donors are asked to donate again, Liesveld says.  In Rochester, it’s happened just four times in more than 1,400 transplants.

Pettrone has been in remission since and every day she remains in remission reduces the chance of a relapse.

The women have corresponded for several months and in celebration of Marrow Donor Awareness Month, the Wilmot Cancer Center coordinated Saturday’s meeting.

Interesting Facts:

  • The James P. Wilmot Cancer Center’s Samuel E. Durand Bone Marrow Transplant Center is the only comprehensive transplant center in upstate New York and accreditated by the Foundation for the Accreditation of Hematopoietic Cell Therapy.
  • Since the Transplant Center was established in 1989, more than 1,400 transplants have been provided to patients ranging in age from infants to older adults. 
  • The Transplant Center is located on the 8th floor of Strong Memorial Hospital and includes 12 private rooms for patients undergoing transplants. 
  • The transplant team is specially trained to support patients and their families from diagnosis to hospitalization and recovery.
  • About 130 people receive transplants each year here in Rochester using marrow or blood stem cells donated by siblings or close relatives, strangers or their own marrow or blood stem cells harvested when they were healthy.
  • At any given time there about 3,000 patients searching the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, which includes about five million potential donors.
  •  To join the registry or learn more about transplants call (585) 275-1941

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For Media Inquiries:
Leslie White
(585) 273-1119
Email Leslie White