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Blood of Life

AFTER HER FIRST pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, Patrizia Durante fell into a dark season of sorrow, a time full of doubts. Confused and depressed, she wondered if she had done something wrong that such a misfortune should come upon her. So when she became pregnant again a few months later, it was as if the sun had risen to scatter the fog. She was elated. She registered at the baby store, ordered new furniture, and picked out pretty clothing and nursery items. A financial adviser, Patrizia made plans to stay home from work for the first year after her daughter’s birth.

Her happy world crumbled, though, when, in the 26th week of her pregnancy, results from a routine glucose test revealed that she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Further testing showed that she also had acute myeloid leukemia (AML)—a mixture that is rare and difficult to treat. Her doctors gave her a 50/50 chance of survival.

Patrizia remembers how she recoiled from the news. “When a doctor tells you at 26 years old that you may die, it’s like nothing you can imagine. I was totally in denial. I was young. I had no symptoms. We were all in shock. It took a while to sink in.”

The Journey Begins

Instead of making peaceful preparations at home, she found herself admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital near Montreal. The hospital has notable facilities in hematology and the care of premature babies, and it looked as if Patrizia was going to need both.

Her family rallied to support her. “We were praying very much, my whole family,” Patrizia recalls. “There is a church here called St. Joseph’s. There is a staircase, which people climb on their knees. It is thought that if you go up to the top, your prayer will be heard. My mom and my aunt climbed that staircase every month, even during the winter.”

The church she is referring to is the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal, a shrine associated with the healer St. André Bessette. The two women climbed the basilica’s long stairway on their knees in an act of petition and devotion. They also invoked Padre Pio, another saint of miracles.

Meanwhile, Patrizia was beginning her own climb, up a dark interior mountain shrouded in mist. Through the difficult months that followed, her husband, Luigi, walked with her each step of the way. “He was my coach; he would bring me up when I was down and scared.” Every night Patrizia was in the hospital, Luigi was there, too, sleeping on a cot.

The doctors began a mild dose of chemotherapy, assuring the pregnant woman that the placenta would protect her unborn child from any harmful effects. Patrizia remained optimistic until, a month later, further testing showed that her illness was progressing rapidly. Her hematologist, Dr. Pierre Laneuville, felt she needed a more aggressive form of chemotherapy. He recommended early delivery of the baby so that the mother could receive the stronger treatment.

While in the hospital, Patrizia picked up a book her husband had given her, From Pregnancy to Parenthood. One page especially caught her eye in a chapter headed “How to Make Arrangements for Cord Blood Banking.” The page listed diseases that could be treated with umbilical cord blood, leukemia among them. She asked her doctors about this possibility, but they were not optimistic. Not wanting to raise false hopes, they explained the limitations to her: the baby’s cells would only half match her mother’s, and there were relatively few of them—about six tablespoons, or one-tenth of what an adult normally needs.

Even so, Patrizia decided to go ahead and save her baby’s cord blood, which needed to be collected at birth. She rushed to find a storage bank that would perform the procedure, but ran into a wall. Her scheduled delivery was only four days away, and she could not find any facilities prepared to work on such short notice. Having called the last number in the phone book, she was ready to give up.

At that moment a hospital coordinator appeared at the door to say, “I understand you want cord blood stored. I’ll look into it for you.” The woman disappeared and returned later with good news: Sainte Justine, a children’s hospital, was willing to provide collection and storage for her. Not only that, but because they had heard of Patrizia’s plight, the hospital offered this service—which can run anywhere from $900 to $2,000—for free.

New Hope

On September 2, 2001, Patrizia gave birth to a girl, whom she named Victoria Angel. Two months premature, the baby weighed in at only 3 pounds, 5 ounces. Tiny though she was, the newborn looked absolutely beautiful to her parents.

“She was so tiny, but she was so perfect!” her mother exclaims. “Then they had to take her away and put her in an incubator. That was hard for me.” As planned, Sainte Justine collected and stored Victoria Angel’s umbilical cord blood for safekeeping.

Inside the umbilical cord are a small number of cells that have not yet “decided what they want to be when they grow up.” They have the potential to become any number of cell-types, including blood, bone, and tissue. They also have the ability to reproduce themselves, so they are self-renewing. These amazing cells are called umbilical cord stem cells—not to be confused with embryonic stem cells. Umbilical cord stem cells are taken from the umbilical cord at birth, with no harm or pain to either the baby or the mother.

One way to treat leukemia is to introduce these cord blood stem cells into the patient. While chemo is used to kill off the old, unhealthy, cancer-ridden blood, the introduced stem cells construct a new blood manufacturing system.

If the new cells are accepted by the patient’s body, they find their way to the bone and begin to transform into blood cells. As time passes, enough new blood is generated to completely renew the bloodstream. One could imagine this process like cleaning up a polluted river by blocking off an old, unhealthy water source and introducing a new water source. After a while, the whole streambed is full of fresh, clear water.

Bone marrow is another source of stem cells that transform into blood. At first, Patrizia’s doctors scoured the world for a bone marrow donor but could not locate a match. Meanwhile, from September to February, Patrizia went through a round of intensive chemo.

“I was going up and down. I had no idea whether I was getting better or worse,” she recalls.

For Christmas, Patrizia returned to her own home and bought presents for everyone. She put up a tree and decorated the house. “It just had to be done. That’s what I concentrated on.” After Christmas, Dr. Laneuville called to congratulate her on her remission.

Harsh Reality

But disappointment followed. Waiting for test results in February, she heard Dr. Laneuville’s footsteps coming down the hall. “Just by his footfall, the way his footstep sounded, I could tell it [the news] was bad. He came back into his office with a grim look and said, ‘It’s back.’” In fact, the cancer was back with a vengeance. She was seriously ill, with a prognosis of only six months to live.

Now began the darkest part of Patrizia’s journey. She often woke in the middle of the night, crying. At the same time, shafts of light would come through. Her prayers became more intense. At least once, she felt a reassuring presence in her room. And Luigi reminded her of a strange encounter she had had early in her pregnancy.

At that time, a woman she knew only incidentally through the Italian community had said to her, “There is something wrong with your blood.” But later, after the diagnosis, she had told Patrizia not to worry. “This baby will save you,” she said.

Luigi coached and cheered his wife through her fears: “Remember, she said you’re not going to die. The baby will save you.”

With her other options gone and time running out, Dr. Laneuville decided that using the baby’s cells was worth a try. It was a risky plan, a last resort. The procedure required the complete shutdown of Patrizia’s own bone marrow, leaving her with no immune system. If it worked, her daughter’s cells would generate new bone marrow and begin to make fresh, healthy blood. But if the baby’s cells did not take, Patrizia would die. It was a decision that could not be reversed, a point of no return. The doctors told her to “prepare her papers.”

Patrizia, who had battled her disease with the help of prayers, family support, and a huge dose of positive thinking, at last had to face the possibility that she might die. Something in her had always denied that possibility. Now, with her husband’s support, she went to her “Girls’ Day Out” and, for the first time, took off her wig. She gathered her family and spoke openly and realistically about her situation. She explained to them that she might just pass away. Amid tears, she expressed her love and gratitude to her parents, asking them to help take care of her baby.

A Life Saved

In the first week of March 2002, Patrizia underwent intensive chemotherapy that destroyed her bone marrow. After this, baby Victoria Angel’s cord blood came out of the freezer at the storage bank. It was thawed and transfused into her mother’s body in something like an IV tube. The blood infusion was short and painless, taking about three minutes. Then began the waiting game.

Because of the danger of infection, Patrizia was put into complete isolation. Only Luigi was with her. Each day her blood count was measured, and at first the results were not promising: all zeroes. Then one day, the blood count was .0001. The next day the readout was .002. Then it was .005.

Once the blood started multiplying, it went very quickly. Within 60 days, she was allowed out of isolation to walk in the corridor with other patients.

“Before, I hated walking in the hall. I couldn’t accept that I was one of these sick, bald people,” Patrizia recalls. “Now, when I came out of isolation and walked in the hall, I was so proud.” It was April 20, her birthday.

Two days later, Patrizia was released from the hospital. After close scrutiny over the next 120 days, she was given a clean bill of health. As Dr. Laneuville explained, what was now circulating in her veins was her baby’s blood.

Patrizia’s procedure had opened up new vistas in medicine, and Dr. Laneuville was elated. Aaron Derfel reported Dr. Laneuville’s response in Canada’s National Post seven months after the procedure. “We are now in an era where we are realizing scientifically and medically that we have sources of stem cells that can become other tissues and can be used therapeutically,” Dr. Laneuville said. “And the most accessible source and the one we’re throwing in the garbage all the time are these cord cells.”

Though her recovery was pivotal to the medical breakthrough, Patrizia’s amazement is more personal. “I gave my baby life, and then she gave me mine!” she exclaims.

A Life-Changing Experience

While Victoria Angel’s stem cells were undergoing their mysterious transformation, Patrizia herself had changed. Her prayer life had deepened. She had drawn even closer to her husband and family. She had faced up to the fact of her mortality. The distance she had once placed between herself and those ravaged by illness had been shorn up by empathy and appreciation for their courage. When it was time to think about work again, Patrizia reorganized her time and energy to be available to her family.

“I truly believe everything happens for a reason; it all happens for the best,” she says. “After that miscarriage, I was in such mourning. But if I had had that [first] baby, I would be dead now. The second pregnancy is what saved my life. I didn’t understand that then, but now I understand. And I am a better person today. I pray more. My priorities have changed.”

Patrizia decided to leave her job as a financial adviser and begin a day-care center in her home so that she could spend more time with her daughter. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m able to have breakfast with Victoria Angel and can receive her home from school at the end of the day.”

Victoria Angel turned 10 years old on September 2, 2011. She is very proud when her mother tells her, “Mommy was very sick. Your blood made me better.”

So does her family call her just Victoria? “Oh, no!” says Patrizia. “We don’t forget about the Angel part. She is Victoria Angel.”