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Facing off against childhood leukemia

John Higgins wearing a Rangers jersey and playing hockey in the snow.

A bone marrow transplant was just what John needed when his childhood leukemia relapsed.

John Higgins, 7, is an enthusiastic hockey fan and cancer survivor. His journey with Cohen Children’s Medical Center began when he experienced a recurrent fever and ear infection at 2 years old.

Colleen Higgins, RN, John’s mother, took him to a pediatric urgent care facility. “They couldn’t find a reason for his fever,” Ms. Higgins recalled. “They did bloodwork and found John had a low white blood cell count as well as a low hemoglobin and platelet count.”

As a nurse, Ms. Higgins understood the severity of the situation: “When [it] started to sink in, I was very concerned and upset.”

She brought her toddler to a local hospital emergency department right away. A pediatrician determined he needed immediate ambulance transport to Cohen Children’s.

Ms. Higgins still remembers the caring EMTs in the ambulance. “They let him watch Mickey Mouse Club House on their iPad, so he wouldn’t be so scared.”

At Cohen Children’s, Jonathan Fish, MD, pediatric hematologist/oncologist, diagnosed John with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). It was a daunting diagnosis, but the medical center had a treatment plan for kids like John.

“Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer,” says Dr. Fish. “But the treatment has a 90 percent success rate.”

“We were glad about the success rate, that the treatment plan was tried and true,” Ms. Higgins said. John started three and a half years of inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy, including a combination of different chemotherapies and steroids, in 2012.

The course of treatment finished in January 2016, but John relapsed that August.

“We were devastated,” his mother said.

quotation mark The doctors lifted his restrictions, like no raw fruit or vegetables or eating in restaurants because his immune system had been weakened. He now goes to school, to birthday parties and he’s learning guitar.
Colleen Higgins

Putting a new plan into play

Remission came slowly when John resumed chemotherapy, so his care team considered him at high risk. This made him a candidate for a bone marrow transplant as a potential cure.

John was placed under the care of Joel Brochstein, MD, associate chief for cellular therapy at Cohen Children’s, and preparation began for a bone marrow transplant.

In December 2016, John began a six-day conditioning regimen to eliminate any remaining leukemia cells and suppress his immune system, so his system wouldn’t reject the transplant, according to Dr. Brochstein. Two days after completing an intensive course of total-body radiation therapy and high-dose chemotherapy, John received a transfusion of donated bone marrow. 

Since no family member was a match, the National Marrow Donor Program found a donor for John.

“The donor’s marrow was harvested and brought by courier to Cohen Children’s the next day," Dr. Brochstein said. "John received the marrow via transfusion. The stem cells he received eventually took hold and started producing normal blood cells.”

In mid-January 2017, John was back to doing normal things.

“The doctors lifted his restrictions, like no raw fruit or vegetables or eating in restaurants because his immune system had been weakened,” Ms. Higgins said. “He now goes to school, to birthday parties and he’s learning guitar.” John now also stars as a superhero in Cohen Children’s latest promotional campaign. Ads highlight his bravery, courage and determination, which inspire Cohen Children’s pediatric specialists to see cancer care differently.

“He’s doing beautifully, he’s never looked back,” said Dr. Brochstein. “He’s off all medication and has had no complications.”

Dr. Brochstein will monitor John’s progress with routine blood tests every two months for the next couple of years. Ms. Higgins is glad to see her son be able to enjoy himself, and recalled a highlight of 2017: "John was featured in an NHL game,” she said. “He went to meet the Rangers and even dropped the ceremonial puck at Hockey Fights Cancer Night at Madison Square Garden.”

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