Luis is thankful the Navy allowed him special leave so he could help save his sister’s life. Katelyne, 13, is thankful her hero brother was a bone marrow match. “This makes us twins,” she says.
“I have B positive blood, so that’s how I knew I’d have to ‘be positive,’” she explains of her acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosis this summer. “That might not be your blood type anymore,” her mother Maria reminds her of the possible impact of the bone marrow transplant as they share their emotions on 7 South, the cancer floor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Maria was there for Katelyne’s transplant. In fact, the entire Florida portion of their family was there for support, including 19-year-old Luis who made a second special trip home to sit with his sister and speak reassuringly in her ear as his bone marrow flowed into her bloodstream. The first trip, weeks earlier, was to donate the marrow that would more than likely save Katelyne’s life. He barely made it back to the USS Lassen, his Naval guided missile destroyer, before it left port. But this brother-sister relationship was worth any risk. The love between these two could power a Navy ship.
“This is the best gift you could give your sister, Luis,” his mother Maria whispered, tears streaming down her face, as they connected Katelyne to the medical port.
When Luis donated, the nurses called him a ‘double hero.’ They told him: “You are serving this country and now you are saving your sister’s life.” “There was no fear and no pressure,” Luis recalls. “I just knew it was something I was going to do. There was only a 25 percent chance that I would be a match. I was so happy I could do this for her,” he recalls. Twins through blood.
“We stayed up all night the night before, just the two of us, and watched Monsters University together. She got a little sick when she got the transplant, but that was to be expected. I had to immediately fly back to Jacksonville, but we use Facebook to keep in touch when I’m on the ship,” Luis explains. Other relatives, including sisters, cousins, aunts have shown their support by donating their hair to an organization that provides hairpieces to children. Katelyne did too. “I was so scared to lose my hair. It look a long time for me to agree to it but I knew it would help.”
Katelyne’s positivity has paid off not only for her, but for several other frightened teens who had just received their own cancer diagnoses at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a top hospital for pediatric cancer care. Her mother, so proud of Katelyne’s maturity and attitude, shares the story. “Both girls are actually older than Katie, but one was so depressed, she would shut herself in her hospital room,” Maria recalls. “Katelyne was the only one she let talk to her.”
Katelyne, eager to tell it, takes over the story. “She asked if chemo was hard. I said it hurts a little bit but she can do it. I also told her to eat candy when they flush her port. It makes the taste go away,” she says. “I also said to be positive....That’s my motto.” Katelyne, who received her own advice from a family friend with cancer, wanted to pay it forward. Not surprisingly, she wants to be a pediatric nurse. “I want to tell my patients, ‘If I can do it, they can do it,’” she says.
That positive attitude may also have sent Katelyne home for the holidays earlier than expected.
“Katelyne was discharged on day 24 after her matched-sibling bone-marrow transplant, which is exceptionally early,” explains her doctor, Benjamin Oshrine, M.D. Typically patients spend 100 days in quarantine. “Her ability to go home so soon after her transplant speaks to her strength, fortitude and bravery in handling a very intensive procedure to treat her leukemia.”
“No way could we have done any of this without the doctors and nurses,” recalls Maria who has remained by Katelyne’s side throughout her entire hospital stay. “They always make sure they meet Katelyne’s needs. I always say no one can take care of my daughter like me, but I trust the nurses here. I’ve never had such a wonderful experience in a hospital as we’ve had here. We are grateful to everyone: room service, the cleaning crew, the nurses and the doctors.”
Before she left the hospital, Katelyne, who turned 13 not long after her transplant, received a special birthday gift from the construction workers who are building the Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital research and education building across the street from her room. When her mother told her to look out the window, there they all were dancing and holding signs for her. Several workers, added facemasks to their safety-vest and hard-hat wardrobe, and stopped by with a card for Katelyne. She loved the surprise.
She loved the staff too, nicknaming everyone who crossed her path. “Dr. Oshrine is Superman. Mike, the nurse who is working on the cancer study I’m in, is Batman. My nurse Heather is Tinkerbell and my favorite room service guy is Captain America,” she explains. She calls her IV pole, ‘Pablo the security guard’ because, “He follows me everywhere,” she adds with a smile.
And Luis? “He’s my hero,” she says simply.
Luis, now back on his Navy ship, which fittingly, goes by the motto: From Courage: Life, could say the same about Katelyn.
For more information on pediatric cancer, visit the Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital Cancer & Blood Disorder Institute.