Two years ago, a young girl was diagnosed with a rare condition I had never heard of. Little did I know, this condition would become a commonly used word in my day-to-day life. This young girl was my sister. She was 16 when she was diagnosed with Aplastic anemia and now, two years later, she is undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and a bone marrow transplant.
Aplastic Anemia is a rare and serious blood disorder that is characterized by little or no production of blood cells. It is often called bone marrow failure because the patient’s bone marrow fails to produce enough red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets for the patient to live.
Bone marrow is a soft, spongy tissue found inside bones that produces blood cells (WiseGeek.com, 2010). There are three types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Each type of blood cell serves a specific function inside the human body and each type is necessary in order to sustain life. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body and dispose of carbon dioxide. White blood cells fight off infections and platelets form clots to stop bleeding.
As you can see, bone marrow plays a very important role in the human body. It is the only place in the body where blood cells can be created.
Aplastic anemia can be classified as mild, moderate or severe. Severe cases were once thought to be fatal (Mayo Clinic, 2009), however with improvements in medical technology and procedures, bone marrow transplants can be given and can save patients who have severe Aplastic anemia.
Aplastic anemia causes patients to feel fatigued and tired. They are more susceptible to infections and risk major blood loss from even small cuts and bruises. Something as simple as a cold can put an aplastic anemic patient in the hospital and can even become fatal if not treated.
Treatments for Aplastic anemia range from medications and blood transfusions to bone marrow transplants, while some forms of Aplastic anemia go away on their own. The causes of Aplastic anemia are not always found. Some cases have been linked to certain medications, while others are linked to injuries that have traumatized the bone marrow. Still, there are cases of Aplastic anemia where the cause is unknown.
My sister’s case is an example of an unknown cause for Aplastic anemia. A seemingly healthy 16 year old, with no major medical history suddenly is faced with a fatal illness. For two years we received alarmingly low blood counts and dozens of medications. A round of ATG (anti-thymocyte globulin) treatments seemed to show promise for beating Aplastic anemia, but barely 6 months after coming off of her medications, my sister found herself with blood cell counts that were quickly dropping. A second diagnosis of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH) in addition to the Aplastic anemia, pointed towards a bone marrow transplant being the only option.
The complications of PNH were causing the blood cells that my sister’s body was producing, to break apart. The only way to give her a cure was to find a bone marrow donor and go through with a transplant. Going through with a transplant meant going through chemotherapy and radiation treatments before and after the procedure and faced her with even more risks, such as graft vs. host disease (GVHD).
Now, my sister rests in a hospital bed at Duke University Hospital, where she is treated by some of the best doctors and nurses. My mother and her father sit faithfully by her side day in and day out while she fights against Aplastic anemia, PNH, and the nasty side effects of chemotherapy.
Though little is known about Aplastic anemia, stem cell research shows promise for new technologies and possible cures. Stem cell research is a touchy topic that many feel is morally unacceptable; however there is the potential to save many lives and help many people like my sister.
WiseGeek.com, What is Bone Marrow
Mayo Clinic, Aplastic Anemia