“A Perfect Match” Part One

The first time I met the Hale girls…it was at their “special place”…the park were you first saw them too. I was nervous…I didn’t know if I was about to see a very sick little girl. I guess that’s what I *did* see, because Denise’s hypodiploid leukemia IS a very serious disease. But you wouldn’t know she was sick unless you asked! That first day, back in May, she was full of energy and acted like every 11-year old should…without a care in the world.

Here’s more about Denise…her family…and her cancer…

Denise started feeling sick when school started last fall. Her teacher Melinda Wiggins at Rachel Freeman says that she was frequently asking to go to the nurse’s office. In elementary school…that’s not exactly unusual! But Melinda says her pain just didn’t seem to let up…

Denise has a very brave…very stoic demeanor. In fact, you’d NEVER think she was just 11! Melinda says that she often sat quietly trying to grin-and-bear the pain…to the point of tears. Denise’s trips to the nurse became a daily routine. At that point, her mother began taking her to doctors…who told her it was ‘nothing’…told her to put her feet up…told her she may have depression…

The pain in her hips continued to get worse and she began to get nose bleeds. They would later find out that both were being caused by the leukemia. Leukemia attacks the bone marrow factory inside the hips by pushing out the “good” blood cells (red, white and platelets). When your body is low on platelets…a nose bleed is a likely result.

In February, her illness took a turn for the worst and she was medevaced to Chapel Hill’s Children’s Hospital. Denise went by herself…an experience she says was “fun and scary at the same time.” I hear there were cartoon movies in the ambulance….

I can’t imagine what was running through Denise’s mind…or her MOTHERS!? At Chapel Hill, Valeria says doctors told her to get herself ready for the chance that Denise did not pull through. When the doctor’s finally diagnosed leukemia…Valeria had the reaction that I imagine most people have…”What? There must be some mistake…leukemia?! Not MY kid!”

She says everything happened so fast, it probably didn’t all sink it right away. At that point…the search began for a donor.

There are 11 million people on the registered donor list. Its very easy to get on…all they have to do is swab your cheek and there are donor drives at local hospitals quite often. However, each of us has a unique DNA sequence on our blood cells based on the DNA that we take from our parents. Its matching THAT sequence up with one of the 11 million which is such a challenge. In addition, the registry is lacking for minority donors. The best chance for a match for ANYONE is someone in their family…a sibling.

So the entire Hale brood tested to check for a match. As it turns out…the youngest girl…Denise’s buddy…and the only one TERRIFIED of needles…was a 100% match! But how do you explain all this to little Janaya!?

At first, Valeria says that Janaya was NOT interested in the duty of saving her sister’s life. In the park, she told me she was scared…but knew that she had a pretty important job to do. She also told me all about the “magic cream” that they would put on her to make the needle pain go away. I wish they had that “magic cream” for adults….because every time I get an I.V….there’s no magic involved…I dont even get a colorful Band-Aid anymore!!

Being the donor is something I think she is very proud of now. Valeria said that some of the other kids were actually pretty upset when they found out they were not the match…

You will be amazed when you see how simple this procedure is…that is tomorrow night. I hope it will encourage everyone to get on the donor list…

During the past few weeks, Denise has been getting chemotherapy treatments. There are a lot of side effects to chemo…the most common and widely known is hair loss. Chemotherapy is a toxic mixture of chemicals that kills every GROWING cell in your body…like blood cells…and hair cells. I thought this part would be especially hard for Denise. Maybe she doesn’t fully comprehend all the technicalities of her cancer…but everyone understands how scary your hair falling out is. Plus, hair is just something these girls love. Valeria does hair professionally and you will never see these girls go a day without a perfectly trimmed ‘do!

It was heart breaking to get a call from Valeria one afternoon saying that she had just undone Denise’s braids and found clumps of hair in her hand…

You saw a clip of that experience from the salon when Denise was getting her hair done. I can’t lie…I almost lost it while filming that part. She’s so much braver than I am!

Valeria has been very straight-forward with Denise about all the side effects and risks of her chemotherapy and transplant. She told her right away that yes, she would loose her hair…that yes, people die from cancer…but yes, because Janaya is such a strong match…and because she is so young…her outlook is good. Valeria says those conversations are more heart breaking than you can imagine…what answer can you give when your daughter asks, “Why me?”

What makes them all so remarkable…is that they have kept their focus on the future. Denise doesn’t have much to say about the cancer…or the chemo…but she will tell you ALL about their upcoming trip to Disney land (a gift from Make-A-Wish). Her doctors and her teacher Ms. Wiggins all agreed with me…there is a resilience that comes with being young that perhaps makes them braver for the fight.

Whereas I would probably be wallowing in my sorrows…eating CinnaBons and feeling bad for myself….Denise seems to take each day for what it is. For her, each day is just a day closer to getting things ‘back to normal.’ She says the first thing she wants to do when she gets home is go to the pool.

She wont be going back to school for some time. The chemotherapy erases her immune system and a public school has WAY too many cooties. She’ll hardly be forgotten at Rachel Freeman Elementary. On the last day of school she was given an award for her scholarship and bravery. A plaque now hangs for her right at the front door.

For all the hours and days I have spent with Denise and Janaya…I am always stumbling over myself to try and describe their wonderful spirits and courage. The same goes for mom. I can barely remember to brush my OWN teeth in the morning…Valeria keeps track of 6 little sets of teeth! Working AND taking care of those high-octane kids is no easy task. Now she’s running back and forth to Chapel Hill to be with Denise. I honestly dont know how she does it! Each Hale child has their own little personality and own little life, FILLED with their own activities, own needs, own wants.

Luckily, Valeria’s insurance is taking care of much of Denise’s +$130,000 hospital bills (I almost fainted when I saw those…it makes me wonder how many of the uninsured suffer through this without treatment…). Still, the cost of travel, food and time missed from work is really beginning to make a dent. There was a great turn-out from the hair salon fundraiser and I hear that people have been donating to Wachovia Bank under “Denise Hale.” If you can help those girls out…I’m sure they’d appreciate it!

Tomorrow I’ll be putting together a piece on her chemo…that will be a web-only story (as decided by the media Gods that run WECT). At 6 you will see the transplant and I’ll have much more up here about how bone marrow transplants work and how YOU can be a donor.

Last note: Denise is still at the hospital and we can only do so much to entertain her! So if you’d like to send her a little “get well” message…she has a Facebook page: Denise Hale (http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/profile.php?id=100000038261432&ref=ts)

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2 Comments

  1. This is Denise’s mom. I would like to thank WECT, and especially Casey for covering Denises story. I had to look at it online because we are up here in Chapel Hill, waiting for her wbc to come up.Denise is doing better day by day. Janaya is back to her old self, doing flips off the chair. All the other kids are fine too.

  2. Hi. This is Denises mom! I would Like to thank WECT, and especially Casey for sharing our story with the community. You wouldn’t believe that me and Casey are like sisters now. She is really a caring person. Denise is doing better day by day. All her hair has fallen out, but she says she is still beautiful! And that is true. We are waiting for Janaya’s cells to start working in Denise’s body. Denise is a strog girl, I guess she gets that from me!hahahaha. Janaya is doing fine. The day after the transplant she was turning filps off the couch. She was so brave to give Denise her cells. I am a proud momma. My other kids are doing well also. Just keep our familt in your thoughts and prayers!


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