Mother's Gift to Son: Haploidentical Stem Cell Transplant

Tyler Gaymon and his mother, Shauna Thomas
Tyler Gaymon and his mother, Shauna Thomas

How could anyone ever express enough gratitude to the person who might have saved his life? For Shauna Thomas, a simple, heartfelt "thank you" from her son, Tyler, said it all. After everything mother and son went through in 2015, they both had plenty of reasons to be thankful.

Last summer, Tyler, a 10-year-old only child who lives with his mother in Springfield Gardens, Queens, developed swelling in his neck and face and experienced such debilitating pain that he struggled to walk. Tyler's pediatrician knew he needed a higher level of care to pinpoint the cause of the mysterious symptoms and referred him to Cohen Children's Medical Center. Weeks of laboratory testing eventually provided a diagnosis: Tyler had a type of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a group of disorders that prevents immature blood cells from developing fully. With an inadequate supply of fully formed blood cells, the body is vulnerable to infection, anemia and easy bleeding, according to the National Cancer Institute. MDS can also lead to leukemia.

In the past, only a stem cell transplant from a perfectly matched donor could have cured Tyler. His hope for a cure via this treatment swiftly faded — no related or unrelated donor whose tissue type matched Tyler's could be found. Fortunately, his medical team had another option, one that had never before been attempted at Cohen Children's: a stem cell transplant from a haploidentical (half-matched) donor. The donor would be Tyler's mother.

Another Way Forward

Previously, haploidentical stem cell transplants weren't an option for MDS patients because of the risk of severe graft-versus-host disease (GvHD). Caused by the mismatched donor cells attacking the patient's organs, the condition leads to severe diarrhea, skin rash and liver inflammation. But Dr. Brochstein has discovered a way to minimize the risk of GvHD, expanding the potential donor pool.

Tyler's prospects appeared brighter with haploidentical stem cell transplantation as an option, but fear of the unknown remained.

"We were so scared, but everyone at Cohen Children's, especially the Child Life specialists, were so amazing, telling me to keep faith, stay positive," Ms. Thomas said. "I trusted their expertise. When they drew blood from me for the stem cell transplant, I prayed to God everything would work out."

On Oct. 29, Tyler received an intravenous infusion of his mother's stem cells at the Gambino Medical and Science Foundation Stem Cell Transplantation Unit at Cohen Children's. A week later, his Cohen Children's pediatric hematologist/oncologist, Joel Brochstein, MD, started seeing positive effects.

"We saw signs of engraftment [growth of new blood-forming cells], which was very encouraging," Dr. Brochstein said. "His white blood count normalized, and his platelet count also returned to normal within two weeks."

Sixteen days after the transplantation, Tyler went home.

Young patients with leukemia or MDS who undergo stem cell transplantation often enjoy high survival rates. But for Tyler, the future can wait because the present is joyful enough. According to his mother, he is focused on his favorite pastimes, including playing video games, and looking forward to learning everything he can during the next school year — things Tyler and his mother could easily take for granted, if the past year hadn't shown them how precious those things are.

Read the Fall 2016 issue of Kids First.

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