Patient Stories

Sammie's Story - Acute Leukemia

Crisis, confusion, and cancer

At the young age of 12, Sammie was diagnosed with acute leukemia.

"I went grocery shopping, came home and she was just lifeless on the couch." –Susan, Samantha’s mom

On June 1, 2002, Sammie went from feeling like she had the flu to very nearly dying. She became seriously ill so quickly that 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 Hospital.

"Sammie has such a positive attitude and she adds laughter wherever she goes." –Susan

A rough road into remission

Sammie formed an instant bond with her oncologist. The first thing he did was assure Sammie that 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.

"Once they figured out her therapies, Sammie followed them until the signs of leukemia were gone." –Susan

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 very same day. Sammie had relapsed. 

I was supposed to go five years without a relapse. But I only went nine months. –Sammie

During her previous treatments, her doctor said that if the leukemia returned, a bone marrow transplant would give her the best chance of being cured. 

We were told that Sammie might not make it through the transplant preparation. And if she survived, she may not make it through the transplant itself because it really does a number on your body.  –Susan

Since the Hospital is the only one in Phoenix equipped to provide this option for pediatric patients, Sammie’s care shifted from Dr. Baranko 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 this cutting-edge therapy to children. So Sammie knew she would continue to be in good hands as she endured the most difficult procedure of her life. 

Every day, medicine, nursing, Physical Therapy, nutrition, Child Life, pain service, pharmacy, and transplant specialists would discuss Samantha’s case to make sure they were doing the best for her and her family. – Roberta Adams, MD, Director, Phoenix Children’s Bone Marrow Transplant Program

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, followed by large doses of chemotherapy for about a week. The goal was to bring her immune system down to zero so that when she received the transplant, her body wouldn’t fight it. 

You’re so weak, you can barely move. It’s like you’re trying to just gather enough energy to pick up a pencil. –Sammie

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.

Sammie’s recovery was quite a ride

It’s so much easier to trust a nurse and a physician when they walk into the room and they don’t look at your chart first. Instead, they come to your child’s bed and ask, “How are you doing?” –Susan

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 girls’ night in to watch TV and eat candy. 

Sammie’s blood levels were monitored continually – each time measuring how well the new bone marrow cells were acclimating to Sammie’s body. Finally, she was well enough to go home. That was the good news. The bad news was that she had to wear a hepa-mask everywhere she went for a full year because her immune system was still so vulnerable. She 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 medications. Best of all, her blood tests do not show any remaining leukemia cells. 

It made me grow up pretty fast.  I don’t care for all that drama or petty stuff anymore. –Sammie

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. 

But before she steps over the threshold to adulthood, Sammie still has some catching up to do. There are many more adrenaline-pumping rides to go on, hiking trails to climb and sand dunes for her quad to conquer.

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