Christmas 2011 is a victory for 17-year-old ending her battle with leukemia
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
One of the projects Ypsilanti Lincoln High School teacher Martin Jacob asks his composition class to complete is an essay called “This I believe.”
One student, Jasmine Mackey, wrote that she believes people need the help of others to persevere through life’s challenges. After all, she wrote, no one is invincible.
Mackey, who is now 17 and a senior at Lincoln, says this from experience, and knows it better than most kids her age.
She had just been released from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital the day before school started, one step in her recovery from Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a form of leukemia, which she is still in the process of beating.
But she remains optimistic and determined, and the end of December will mark the one-year anniversary of her radiation and bone marrow transplant. Those several days after Christmas she now calls her second birthday, because she started getting rid of her old cancerous cells and growing new cells that would again make her a healthy person.
“The obstacles that we all face are just that; obstacles,” she wrote in the essay. “Obstacles hinder progress; they do not stop it. We are all challenged daily by the world, but in us all is the strength to persevere and overcome. I was recently faced with a huge obstacle; I was diagnosed with MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of leukemia. This was a major reality check for me. I wasn't invincible.”
Mackey was diagnosed with leukemia early in her junior year, but managed to finish most of her school work online despite being hospitalized for 40 days, receiving a bone marrow transplant and undergoing radiation treatment. The National Honor Society member is now finishing two credits from her junior year while working through her senior year. Missing her senior experience with her friends, she explained, was unthinkable.
As she recovers, Mackey and her family want to raise awareness of leukemia in children and the issues that surround it, such as the lack of blood supply for African-Americans and the support available to patients from other survivors.
The journey has also motivated Mackey to pursue a career in medicine so she can use her personal experience to relate with and treat sick children. Her ultimate goal is to return to C.S. Mott to help kids heal instead of checking in for treatment.
Mackey visited the doctor on Nov. 1, 2010, after feeling lethargic and ill since school had started. Her family thought she was faking an illness to get out of school as teens sometimes do, but she said they became concerned when she could no longer take part in her favorite activity — band.
Within days, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy just before Christmas 2010 with radiation and a bone marrow transplant after the holiday.
The search for a bone marrow donor began, but proved challenging. None of the 50 donors who doctors hoped would match Mackey's blood and marrow type would work, so the family pinned their hopes on a “cord” transplant. The procedure uses specially stored umbilical cord blood and is less likely to be rejected by the body and cause severe illness or death.
The successful transfusion occurred on Dec. 28 — a day Mackey now celebrates as her second birthday because it marks when the new blood began replacing the blood she was born with.
Mackey says the early days of her fight with cancer were mixed with disbelief, fear and anger, though she eventually was able to change her perspective and remain positive, which doctors told her was one of her strongest weapons in the fight.
“I just realized being angry wasn’t going to help, and dwelling on it wasn’t going to make it medically go away, so I had to deal with it,” she said. “I slowly started to deal with it and tried to stay positive."
Mackey’s mother, Amy Boyd, said she didn’t fully realize at the outset that the doctor her daughter had been referred to was an oncologist, who was testing for cancer. So the news that Jasmine likely had cancer caught her off-guard.
“I knew what leukemia was, but the only people I know who had cancer are people who have died,” she said. “It was a nightmare for me, my husband and our family. It was just that second our life changed.”
Following her transfusion, Mackey remained hospitalized for 40 days. The new blood cells, which made up “the new Jasmine” were still fighting off the old cancer cells, and her immune system was weakened.
Every two weeks she received blood and platelet transfusions, and It was during recovery that her symptoms were the worst. Her hair and nails fell out, she developed sores in her mouth, she couldn't barely eat or drink, her hands inexplicably felt like they were burning, she was nauseous and she developed mucositis.
As her health improved during her stay on the seventh floor of C.S. Mott, Mackey saw regular visits from healthy friends, got to decorate her room and spent hours with her mother.
She also grew fond of Mott’s seventh-floor staff, who she said talked with her on a personal level, came to a fundraiser and acted like friends as much as doctors or nurses.
“They took time out to get to know me, and it was just nice that they kept me company,” Mackey said. “I really think we became friends. It wasn’t just ‘I’m taking care of you and then leaving,’ they showed they really care.”
Meanwhile, the illness presented challenges for Mackey's family. Boyd took a leave of absence from her job and spent all but several days at the hospital. During those days, she was too emotionally and physically drained to be at the hospital.
The arrangement left Jasmine’s father, Keith Boyd, to care for the family’s other children and required him to take more time off work, which meant less income as bills began piling up. Meidcaid covered most of the medical costs, which Amy Boyd estimated were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The family also received support and donations from several organizations. The Rainbow Connection gave Mackey a shopping spree at Great Likes Crossing Mall so she could buy new clothes after dropping six sizes during her battle.
Alley’s Angels gave Mackey a gift card to buy her family presents at Christmas, and Just For Kids donated a $700 gift card to Meijer to help with items needed during recovery. And while Amy Boyd visited her daughter, Dorothy’s Daycare was able to get donations from neighbors to help with the cost of watching the kids and remaining open on Saturdays.
While she is getting stronger, she still isn’t able to do all the things she would like. She can’t play in the band, missed all of Lincoln’s football games, can’t do anything athletic and keeps a fresh coat of hand sanitizer on her hands to protect her weakened immune system. Still, she is able to help out with band, participates in student council and is hoping to join Key Club.
Mackey's condition is steadily improving, and her body is roughly 80 percent new cells and 20 percent old cells, which will eventually be destroyed. Her immune system is like that of a 9-month-old. Occasionally she falls ill and must be hospitalized as she did before school started.
“Now, nine months after my transplant I am doing as expected by my doctors,” Mackey wrote in her essay. “Of course I have my good days and bad days and bumps in the road as everyone will.
"The thing is though, life in itself is an obstacle and we must all be patient take a step back and continue to climb the walls that are built to keep us away from success and happiness. This I Believe.”