When Eli came home from baseball practice this past April with bruises on his body, his mom Jessica, an internal medicine specialist, and his dad Bryan, a trauma surgeon, didn’t think anything of it. “We assumed his coach was just throwing hard pitches, because every time Eli got hit with the ball, his skin bruised,” says Jessica. But 10-year-old Eli didn’t let a few bruises stop him. He continued to play baseball and basketball, work hard in his fifth grade classroom and goof off with his two younger sisters, 6-year-old Anna and 3-year-old Sarah.
Having a child diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is heart-wrenching for all parents, but when the diagnosis itself is uncertain, parents can face excruciatingly difficult decisions. This is what Katie and Josh Stevens of Idaho confronted after their son Riley was diagnosed in October 2012 with the blood disorder aplastic anemia, in which the body’s bone marrow produces too few oxygen-carrying red blood cells, too few infection-fighting white blood cells and too few clot-promoting platelets.
He was an 11-year-old skier and runner who was tired, bruised and unable to shake a cold. When his blood was drawn, he became pale, and his lips turned blue.
So Riley began a course of medications to suppress his immune system, but he had only a minimal response to the therapy. He needed a stem cell transplant.
Further testing at Seattle Children’s revealed Riley had shortened telomeres, or ends of chromosones, which stymied cells’ ability to regenerate. This is characteristic of another rare bone marrow failure syndrome called dyskeratosis congenita (DC), but Riley did not manifest other telltale signs of DC such as white spots in the mouth, lacy rash around the neck and brittle nails. Katie and Josh would need to decide between two very different stem cell transplant options. …