Last October, Elsa Wiemerslage suddenly became devastatingly nauseous with a fever. Her pediatrician sent her directly to the Dan Dierdorf Emergency and Trauma Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. Christopher Hugge, MD, a Costas Center oncologist, spent the night beside Elsa, initiating treatment in the pediatric intensive care unit as tests were ordered to pinpoint the cause of her illness.
Elsa’s diagnosis was acute myeloid leukemia (AML), says Hugge, assistant professor in hematology-oncology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
“Leukemia is a cancer of the blood-making system. About 5,000 kids in the country are diagnosed with leukemia every year,” he says. “In pediatrics there are two main types, ALL (acute lymphocytic leukemia), and AML. About 20% of our patients have AML. Their treatment is shorter but is more intensive so the risk of side effects such as infections is higher.”
Patients with AML also are more likely to require a stem cell transplant. “Elsa is missing a piece of one of her chromosomes so we knew she had a type that would not respond without a transplant.”
Elsa Wiemerslage lived on the inpatient cancer unit (4 North) for more than 100 days out of a four month period. Four North is the inpatient home for many patients of The Costas Center. Families stay for weeks or months while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments. The floor also holds the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, an isolation wing in which patients recover following chemotherapy to eradicate their body’s diseased blood-making and immune systems so they can be replaced with cells from healthy bone marrow or cord blood.
While a patient on 4 North, Elsa underwent four rounds of chemotherapy before she entered its restricted transplant unit. When Elsa’s younger brother Eli was born a month after Elsa’s cancer diagnosis, his umbilical cord was collected by the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. It was Eli’s cord blood that provided the lifesaving stem cells that gave Elsa healthy, functioning blood-making and immune systems.
Sister Claire’s blood type matched Elsa’s, making her an excellent bone marrow donor. Baby Eli matched, too, so his cord blood offered a still-better source.
“Things have gone more smoothly for Elsa than they go for most kids. Having a sibling donor is always our first choice. I’m sure that helped,” says Shermini Saini, MD, a transplant oncologist at The Costas Center and a Saint Louis University assistant professor pediatrics.
“Elsa has become a shining light on our unit. She is probably managing everything far better than I would be able to if I was a 6-year-old little girl with leukemia. She has a great sense of humor and has never really complained,” says Natalie Smith, RN, BSN, nursing team leader on 4 North at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
When Elsa’s parents brought her sister Claire and brother Eli to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon for visits, nurses held and hugged the siblings behind the nurse’s station outside the isolation unit doors.
“There were nights when I was here with Elsa and Kevin was working, so I had my other two children here,” Adrienne says. “The nurses would have the other kids behind the desk, holding them and loving on them. It has cushioned the blow of living in a hospital.”
“Of course it is fun to play with Claire and Eli,” Smith says. “We enjoy doing that for Adrienne because we know how stressful her life is.”
“These doctors and nurses are amazing. You get really close,” says Elsa’s mom, Adrienne. “They take care not only of Elsa but all of us.”
Elsa was discharged from the hospital on March 30 to continue her recovery.
“Elsa is doing awesome,” her mother says. “I strongly believe it is because of the care we got here from the doctors and nurses from the emergency room to the PICU to The Costas Center to 4 North. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for these people.”