For the past 11 years, Ollie Green has had to worry about debilitating pain attacking his body at a moment’s notice. But now, his pain has gone away forever. Ollie underwent a bone marrow transplant (BMT) on Feb. 24 in hopes of curing his sickle cell disease. It is the first time Children’s Hospital performed a BMT from an unrelated donor for a sickle cell patient. On April 3, a blood test proved his blood cells were 100 percent healthy; his sickle cell disease was cured.
"Man, this is a good day,” Ollie (shown left) said, flashing his smile. "I’m so glad to be through with sickle cell.”
Ollie’s first memory of dealing with his disease was when he was five years old. "I missed my mom’s birthday,” said the 16-year-old from New Iberia, La.
"Then I missed Mother’s Day and my birthday. I missed everything because I was in the hospital.”
Sickle cell is an inherited disease in which normal, disc-shaped red blood cells, which take blood to every part of the body, break into fragile crescents that resemble a sickle, a curved blade used to cut crops like wheat. Sickled cells often get caught in and block blood flow, causing severe pain crises and potential damage to organs, muscles and bones. In addition to bouts of pain, which may last for hours or even days, in the hands, feet, belly, back or chest, it can lead to infections, anemia and stroke. People with sickle cell disease often have anemia, caused by a shortage of red blood cells, which makes them weak and tired. The only physical sign might be a pale or washed-out look and skin and the whites of their eyes may have a yellow look of jaundice.
Ollie’s crises occurred as often as four times a month with pain so bad he would be hospitalized for two weeks at a time. It has caused him to miss school and the activities most youngsters take for granted. However, on a recent weekend trip home, he got to experience something he longed to do – play basketball with friends.
"It felt so good to go out and play and not worry about the pain coming,” Ollie said. "I haven’t been able to do anything strenuous, so that’s what I was looking forward to most.”
Ollie’s mother, Tanya said she’s so excited about her son being cured that she’s ready to be jumping and running beside him. "For years, there was nothing I could do to ease his pain,” said Tanya Green. "It was so stressful and frustrating, being his mother and not being able to do anything. He’s had dose after dose of morphine to deal with the pain. It doesn’t take it away, but helps him cope. This bone marrow transplant is really going to make a life difference for us.
"To see him out there now doing all the things that kids are supposed to be doing is a dream come true. Even though he’s my oldest, he’s my baby, and it hurt me to see him hurting. Hopefully now he’ll have a ‘more normal life.’”
For the past several years, Ollie has endured an eight-hour blood transfusion every 21 days to manage the effects of his disease. When the Green family was told in spring 2011 that a BMT might cure Ollie, his family members, including two sisters, were tested to see if they could donate marrow. Unfortunately, the results were negative. Seven months later, doctors found an anonymous donor whose marrow was a perfect match.
"We were hoping that Ollie would get this transplant and it would take care of all of the pain he has,” said Dr. Lolie Yu, director of Children’s Hospital’s Hematology/Oncology department, bone marrow transplant program director and professor of pediatrics at LSU Health Sciences Center – New Orleans. "It went just as we had hoped.”
Yu said Ollie’s transplant is rare because sickle cell patients often have difficulty finding a donor whose blood marrow matches. "More than 50,000 people have had bone marrow transplants from unrelated donors to treat leukemia, lymphoma, and other diseases, but there have been around 100 sickle cell patients in the United States who have undergone this procedure with an unrelated donor,” she said.
"This transplant is riskier than with related donors, but we found a perfect match. Ollie has met all of the benchmarks he was supposed to have met by now,” she said. "This is really exciting. He will soon be on his way to living life like a teenager.”
In the past, sickle cell patients often died from organ failure between 20 and 40 years old, but with better understanding and management of the disease, today patients can live into their 50s or beyond. Recent medical research has found that bone marrow or stem cell transplants can cure sickle cell anemia. However, transplants are not an option for most patients because of the difficulty in finding well-matched donors. Tanya Green said she hopes Ollie’s experience will prompt more people, especially African-Americans (about one in 12 African-Americans has sickle cell trait) to register as donors.
Ollie was admitted to Children’s Hospital on Feb. 15, and had to stay there until he recovered from the transplant. Because his associated radiation/chemotherapy treatment reduced his ability to fight infection, he had to stay in isolation for nearly a month. To help him keep in touch with friends and family in New Iberia, Ollie’s parents bought him a mobile phone with face-to-face messaging. "It was tough to be in New Orleans and not be part of Carnival,” Ollie said as he entered the hospital, "but I’m looking forward to being finished with sickle cell and being able to play.”
As he prepared for the five-hour transplant, similar to a blood transfusion, he described his feelings as akin to pre-game jitters before a football game. "I’m a little nervous,” he said, "but really excited to be through with sickle cell.”
By mid-March Ollie had passed all of the major medical hurdles patients face after a transplant and was preparing to be discharged from the hospital.
He was a nervous about going out in public because his hair was falling out due to his treatment, but he wanted to post a photo update on Facebook to let his friends know he was getting out of the hospital. As soon as a camera waspresented, he told the photographer to stop because he had to straighten his hair before he took his photo. A smile spread across his face as he ran his hand along his bare scalp. The room burst into laughter and an easiness settled at seeing Ollie so free spirited in light of all he’s been through.
Ollie will still have to receive frequent check-ups to ensure his immune system returns to proper health. He and Tanya will stay at the Ronald McDonald House in New Orleans until he is cleared to return home.
For now, Ollie is thinking about life after sickle cell disease, and potential athletic success.
"It’s unfortunate that some sickle cell patients suffer through this as much as he has, but he’s got a very positive attitude and tremendous support from his mom and dad,” Dr. Yu said. "We’re all praying and wishing him the best.”