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Marrow donor, girl she saved meet

Monday, June 11, 2001

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Most children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia are cured by chemotherapy, but those who experience a cancer recurrence face odds of survival that are less than 50-50.

Jessie Kanehl saved 11-year-old leukemia patient Susie Hutsky in 1999 by donating her bone marrow. The two met for the first time yesterday at Kennywood during a reunion picnic. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Susie Hutsky confronted that grim picture nearly two years ago, but yesterday the 11-year-old from Mineral Point, Cambria County, was alive and well, spending a day at Kennywood Park with the woman whose donated bone marrow saved her.

Susie and the donor, Jessie Kanehl, 40, of Armada, Mich., met for the first time during the seventh annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion Day, a picnic celebration for children and young adults who have undergone bone marrow transplants. The event drew more than 100 people, including 32 patients.

"If it wasn't for Jessie, I don't know what we would have done," said Susie's mom, Janet Hutsky. "A few years ago, we never thought Susie would be here with us, and now, look at her today."

Susie had what seemed to be a terrible cold in November 1997. Thinking it might be pneumonia, her parents took her to a doctor. The truth was much worse: Susie, who was 8 at the time, needed to be flown by helicopter to Children's Hospital in Oakland, where she was diagnosed with leukemia.

Chemotherapy knocked the bone marrow cancer into remission, but when it reappeared in April 1999, doctors initiated stronger chemotherapy in preparation for a bone marrow transplant. The search for a donor started at home, but neither Susie's parents nor her siblings, Sara, 18, and Andrew, 14, were able to donate. By the time the second round of chemotherapy had knocked the cancer into remission, clearing the way for the transplant, Kanehl had agreed to help.

At the time, Kanehl was among 4 million people listed on a registry of potential bone marrow donors in the United States. Unlike solid organ transplants, there's no shortage of donors for bone marrow. But both types of procedures depend on altruism.

Kanehl agreed to be a donor in the mid 1990s when a popular radio host in Detroit needed a bone marrow transplant and asked listeners to add their names to the national bone marrow registry. She signed up but wasn't called on to help the radio host. Her name stayed on the list, though, until she was called about Susie. Of 10 people identified on the registry as having blood cells that matched well with Susie's, Kanehl was the top pick.

"When they told me it was a 10-year-old little girl, I cried like I am right now," Kanehl said. "I went down right away to the hospital."

Doctors in Detroit removed one liter of bone marrow in September 1999 by surgically inserting a needle through Kanehl's back and into the iliac crest of the pelvic bone. She spent a day in the hospital and missed one week of work.

A distillation of the bone marrow was given to Susie in Pittsburgh through an intravenous transfusion. Kanehl's bone marrow stem cells created bone marrow to replace the girl's diseased marrow, which had already been destroyed through chemotherapy and radiation.

The curly-haired girl who rode with Kanehl on a ride called The Kangaroo yesterday looked nothing like the one who came away from the transplant in 1999 with a bald head and a greatly weakened body, said Dr. Rakesh Goyal, director of blood and marrow transplant at Children's. Susie couldn't even walk, let alone attend school. Now, she runs and plays and is completing the sixth grade, her first full year of classes at school since the second grade.

"If the leukemia doesn't come back in three months, there's a good chance she's cured," Goyal said.

For the past year, Susie and Kanehl have communicated regularly through e-mail and phone calls, but yesterday's meeting brought them closer.

"This is exciting," Susie said. "I've never seen her before."

"Never in my wildest imagination did I think I could do this for somebody," Kanehl said.

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