A Dangerous and Unexpected Road Ahead
Crisis, Confusion and Cancer
At the young age of 12, Sammie was diagnosed with acute leukemia.
On June 1, 2002, Sammie went from feeling like she had the flu to very nearly dying. She became seriously ill so quickly, doctors at a nearby hospital thought she had acute liver failure. So, they flew her to a hospital in San Diego for a liver transplant.
Just before the flight, Sammie fell into a coma. Her family was in disbelief, shock and immense grief. As she waited for a liver donor in San Diego, she stabilized and actually began feeling a little better, but not well enough to go home. After almost three months of waiting, she was eventually given a test that revealed she had acute leukemia.
Sammie needed to begin immediate treatment. The family knew this was going to be a long process so they wanted to be close to home. Without delay, they transferred Sammie to Phoenix Children’s.
A Rough Road into Remission
Sammie formed an instant bond with her oncologist. The first thing he did was assure Sammie he would talk directly to her about every treatment, each step of the way. Nothing would be hidden and she would always be the first to know what was going on. The family was incredibly relieved to have a doctor who was communicative, thoughtful and ready to do whatever it took to get Sammie well again.
But with chemotherapy came complications. Sammie was allergic to many of the treatment options. The medicines affected her liver, gastrointestinal system, pancreas and brain functions.
Finding the right therapies proved almost as difficult as battling the leukemia. Her visits to the Hospital varied from three times a week to three times a day, depending on her reactions to the medications. Eventually her doctors found a balance, and after a two-year struggle, Sammie was finally in remission.
Relapse Tests Sammie’s Endurance
On February 2, 2005, Sammie was in her ninth grade P.E. class playing baseball when she started to feel weak. The nurse said she was running a fever and wisely sent Sammie back to PCH. She was admitted that same day. Sammie had relapsed.
During her previous treatments, her doctor said if the leukemia returned, a bone marrow transplant would give her the best chance of being cured.
Since the Hospital is the only one in Phoenix equipped to provide this option for pediatric patients, Sammie’s care shifted from Paul Baranko, MD, to Roberta Adams, MD, Director of the Phoenix Children’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, who works in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic to bring cutting-edge therapy to children. Sammie knew she would continue to be in good hands as she endured the most difficult procedure of her life.
Hope in a Bone Marrow Transplant
The first step of the bone marrow transplant was to find a donor. Though Sammie has four sisters, none were the right match. Fortunately, a national search revealed 1,700 potential options and three exact matches. That step was quick and painless but the next step literally put her life on the line.
Sammie endured five days of cranio-spinal radiation, followed by three days of total body radiation, then large doses of chemotherapy for about a week. The goal was to bring her immune system down to zero so when she received the transplant, her body wouldn’t fight it.
"You’re so weak," Sammie said, "you can barely move. It’s like you’re trying to just gather enough energy to pick up a pencil."
Sammie survived this process, although she was highly susceptible to life-threatening infections. Because of this, she was transferred to an isolation room where the actual intravenous transplant took place.
At first, the transplant seemed to be working. But then Sammie’s face became swollen to the point where she could barely eat. Her body was rejecting the new bone marrow cells. Once again, there was a chance she might not survive. Sammie spent close to three months in the isolation room, at times half conscious and in pain and other times just bored and depressed. But she was determined to beat the cancer. Her family visited often, giving her the strength she needed to turn the corner. And finally, she did.
The Recovery was Quite a Ride
On her road to recovery, Sammie counted on the nurses more than ever. She deeply appreciated their attentive kindness. “They were determined to help save my life and to make things less difficult,” recalls Sammie. “They were there to make sure I got the opportunity to live a life I’ve always wanted to live.” Christy, a volunteer, cheered up Sammie when she was feeling down, organizing a girls’ night in to watch TV and eat candy.
Sammie’s blood levels were continually monitored — each time measuring how well the new bone marrow cells were acclimating to her body. Finally, she was well enough to go home. That was the good news. The bad news was she had to wear a hepa-mask everywhere she went for a full year because her immune system was still so vulnerable. Sammie also had many scares where she had to be rushed to the Hospital. But she got through them all and she is finally off most of her medications. Best of all, her blood tests do not show any remaining leukemia cells.
This year, Sammie is a senior in high school. After graduation, she plans to attend massage therapy school. Her physical therapist at the Hospital, Amy Devening, played a big role in this decision. During sessions, they talked about the body’s ability to heal. And as Sammie began to rehabilitate, she saw how remarkably well she recovered. This served as an inspiration for her career.