Now Jessica Wants to Help Others
“Somebody from oncology sat me down in one of those rooms. They brought all of my family in. Being eight years old, I knew something was up. The second they said the word ‘cancer,’ I saw everyone gasp and go into tears. I’d never heard the word before. I started to cry and scream at the doctor, telling him, ‘I can’t believe you could do this to a kid!’
“I’m sure they still tell stories about me,” said Jessica Hahn, now 21, rolling her eyes and laughing.
That diagnosis of osteosarcoma, a bone tumor, led to Jessica’s first lengthy course of care at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in 1996. She returned in 2001 for a second lengthy stay for myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the bone marrow. She spent last summer at Glennon serving an internship in the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank, which provided the cord blood stem cells used in that treatment.
“I know a lot of people at the Costas Center, so I put a bug in their ear when I came in for my long-term follow-up over Christmas break,” Jessica said. “I am really interested in research, and they got me a place over here for the summer. I was a data management assistant, going over outcomes and putting things in the computer.”
Jessica is a pretty, energetic young woman from Imperial, Missouri, who is a senior at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. She walks with a pronounced limp, a result of her childhood osteosarcoma and approximately 30 surgical procedures that have been performed over the years to save her leg.
“My leg has been through a lot. It hurts every day, but it still works,” she said.
Her relationship with Cardinal Glennon began when she took a kick to her left leg while playing “karate kids” with a friend. She felt excruciating, enduring pain. A trip to the emergency room and an x-ray revealed a four-inch bone tumor. She was referred to Glennon, where she began a year of chemotherapy.
“Then I had nine inches of my femur bone removed,” Jessica said. “They put in a metal plate and a bone graft. It fused well on the top but not on the bottom. I was constantly going in for more surgeries. I would be sitting in my room at Glennon with my mom. We just looked at each other – we didn’t have any tears left, so all we could do was laugh.”
On a return visit to Glennon for one of her leg operations, blood tests uncovered another problem. “My platelet count was 30. A normal count is 100 to 400. I should have been internally bleeding, but I wasn’t. They rushed me into the hospital again.”
A biopsy led to the diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome, which results from damage to the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow.
“The chemo I had when I was eight years old killed my cancer, but along with it my bone marrow. I wasn’t making anything on my own anymore,” Jessica said.
A bone marrow transplant could repopulate her blood-forming cells, but her parents and two younger sisters did not match her blood type. “Before we could worry, they told us, ‘But we have cord blood.’”
Jessica began another lengthy hospitalization, this time in Glennon’s stem cell transplant unit. She underwent chemotherapy to eradicate what remained of her bone marrow, then received a matching unit of stem cells from the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank.
“This was kind of early in cord blood stem cell transplantation,” Jessica said. “They told me it was still experimental. After what my family had been through before, we thought we could do it again. We didn’t think about the fact that there was a 50-percent chance . . . . well, had a very positive attitude. You don’t have time to think ‘poor me.’”
Jessica’s “second birthday,” when she received the new stem cells, came on Valentine’s Day, 2001. She experienced complications but the new cells began working in her body 30 days after the transplant. “Within months I was feeling really good. Before that school year was out I got to go see all my classmates again.”
Jessica, who now carries an artificial thigh bone and knee in her left leg, is a biology major who plans to pursue a master’s degree in genetic counseling after graduating from Rockhurst.
“I was always very curious and asking a lot of questions. When I was eight years old I wanted to draw my own blood,” she said. “Science came easy to me. I won a little medal in grade school for a science test.”
During her internship Jessica visited her nurses in the Costas Center and the room in which she spent one of her hospitalizations.
“I have all those memories – I fell in love with the nurses and everybody who came in to talk with me. It doesn’t hit me very often, but when I do think about it I realize I was walking on ice so much of my childhood. I am amazed I am still here.
“I am a faithful person because of it. I think everything happens for a reason. At Glennon, they know they have to fix your body, but they know there is more to you. They really worry more about your heart and soul. Now I want to help other people.”