Emma’s Journey: Brother’s Bone Marrow Helps Girl Battle Leukemia

Emma Duffin, 8, gets a hug from her brother Alex, 11, at home in Enfield, Conn. Emma was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia last year and has had to undergo a bone marrow transplant and months of radiation and chemotherapy. Alex was the bone-marrow donor. (Stephen Dunn/TNS)

ENFIELD, Conn. – When 7-year-old Emma Duffin came down with strep throat last spring, her family never imagined the journey that illness would begin.

When Emma spiked a 104-degree fever, her mother took her to the emergency room at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford Springs, Conn.

A doctor noticed Emma had dangerously low red and white blood cell counts, so she was sent to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center for more tests. Her hemogobin level, normally a 12, was at 3. She received three pints of blood.

A few days later, a diagnosis: leukemia. A biopsy indicated the disease was located in her bone marrow.

“That was Mother’s Day weekend,” Allyson Duffin, Emma’s mother, said recently. “We cried and then said, ‘Now what?’”

Samples of Emma’s bone marrow were sent to the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in Rochester, Minn., Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to determine what type of leukemia she had.

It turned out Emma has a rare form of leukemia called acute undifferentiated leukemia that is especially rare in children, according to Dr. Natalie Bezler, Emma’s doctor at CCMC. Effects on the cellular level can differ from patient to patient.

“At first I thought cancer was a disease by itself, you just had ‘cancer,’” Emma said. “But, no, there’s different types of cancer.”

The summer brought a new set of challenges for the Duffin family.

Emma was undergoing treatment at both CCMC and Boston Children’s Hospital. Both sets of grandparents, who live near Phoenix, pitched in to help take care of Emma’s brother, 11-year-old Alex, while her parents spent time with her in the hospital.

“We felt bad for Alex. He would say, ‘Nothing’s fun without Emma,’” Allyson Duffin said.

Doctors recommended that Emma receive a bone marrow transplant, but first she needed chemotherapy to reduce the cancer in the blood cells in her marrow. The stem cells in the new bone marrow would then stimulate new growth, suppress the disease, and reduce the possibility of a relapse.

After three rounds of chemotherapy, starting May 22 and finishing around mid-September, Emma went from having 70 percent of her cells affected to 0.2 percent.

Now it was time to find a bone marrow donor. When the family was tested, Alex was a perfect match.

“I was pretty shocked when I found out,” said Alex, a sixth-grader. “I was hoping it was me.”

“When we found out … it was like, we deserved it, that something would just work in our favor,” Allyson said. “We are very blessed.”

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Because some bone marrow transplants are unsuccessful, his parents told Alex that even if his marrow couldn’t help Emma, “it’s the thought and love that counts,” Allyson said. “We don’t want him to feel as though it was his responsibility.”

On Sept. 2, Emma celebrated her eighth birthday in her room at CCMC while she awaited her bone marrow transplant.

“My mom decorated my room for (my) birthday,” Emma said. “Oh, it was great.”

Her classmates at her elementary school gathered in the gym and sang “Happy Birthday” to Emma.

Before she headed to Boston Children’s Hospital to prepare for the transplant, Emma and her family visited her friends at school and attended a Boston Red Sox game.

On Sept. 26, Emma entered the hospital in Boston to begin “conditioning” for the transplant. The process includes “two days of chemotherapy and four days of radiation therapy,” Allyson said. “It’s meant to completely obliterate her bone marrow so she’d take to Alex’s when it was transplanted.”

On Oct. 2, both Duffin children went into surgery: Alex to donate his marrow, Emma to receive it. Doctors used needles to withdraw Alex’s liquid marrow, which was then infused into Emma’s bloodstream. Because blood cells know where they belong, Alex’s cells migrated into Emma’s bone marrow.

Both children came through their procedures with flying colors. The only side effect was a rash that Emma developed.

“I was so itchy -- my hands and feet -- it hurt and stung,” Emma said.

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Chris Etling is a copy editor and paginator at the Arizona Daily Sun. He's worked for the Daily Sun since November 2009.

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