Skip to main content

Stem cell therapy: Boy’s umbilical cord blood could help sister with leukaemia

Daily Telegraph: Lisa Mayoh

Mum Vanessa Travers calls her surprise baby Jack a ‘gift’. He could also be a lifesaver for his big sister Mary-Elizabeth in her fight to beat leukaemia.

Vanessa Travers knew something was not right when daughter Mary-Elizabeth could not shake a virus that had felled the whole family.

Then when the little girl complained of a sore knee, her mum’s heart sank.

She followed her gut and pushed for tests doctors didn’t think Mary-Elizabeth needed, only for her worst fears to be confirmed.

Mary-Elizabeth was diagnosed with leukaemia just three weeks before her third birthday.

“I treasure every single day now because you just do not know what tomorrow brings,” Ms Travers, 45, told Saturday Extra.

“One day we were sitting around the table having a normal family dinner – the next we were in hospital with transfusions and a cancer diagnosis – and that was within a 24-hour period.

“Our whole life had completely changed, for the worse.”

It was in November of 2019 that Ms Travers and her family – husband Rod Costa, Mary-Elizabeth and one-year-old son Henry fell ill with a virus.

Vanessa Travers with husband Rod Costa and their children Mary-Elizabeth, who has leukaemia, Henry (left) and Jack at their Caringbah home. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

But while the rest of the family soon shook it off, Mary-Elizabeth didn’t.

“A good friend’s girlfriend had a son six months older than Mary-Elizabeth and 18 months earlier he had been diagnosed with leukaemia and he had complained of a sore knee,” the nurse said.

“I didn’t even want to say it out loud to my husband, but I’m pretty hyper vigilant with things, so we went to the GP and I wanted her to get checked out and have blood work done.

“They said she looked well and it was probably just a virus and wouldn’t have investigated further.” Ms Travers insisted, but nowhere near their Caringbah home could do the necessary tests on Mary-Elizabeth that afternoon.

“I couldn’t sleep that night because I kept putting all these things together. She was having night sweats and had a little bit of blood around her nostril. So in the middle of the night I said to my husband we’re taking her to the hospital and we did,” she said.

“So they got her the blood test, and they put us in a room.

“The next thing, we saw them all filing in and they told us she needed a blood transfusion and had to be transferred to Randwick straight away, so we went in the ambulance and it just went from there.

“It is your worst nightmare.

“You think straight away ‘I could lose her. I could lose this child’.”

Mary-Elizabeth Costa was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was three years old.

The Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick became Mary-Elizabeth and her mum’s makeshift home off and on for the next nine months of intensive treatment.

Chemotherapy and steroid medication made Mary-Elizabeth angry, agitated and endlessly hungry. It got so bad that she would need to be sedated for medication to be administered.

By then, Covid had shut down Sydney and restrictions only allowed one parent in the hospital at a time.

“The first week or two is just such a blur,” Ms Travers said.

“The medical tests, putting in the port that she needed to have to have the medication through … I had friends flying down from Queensland to look after Henry because both my mum and Rod’s mum live overseas.

“Rod was with me at that time but once Covid hit we had to be alone at the hospital and we got to see each other for 15-minute handovers.

“You just do whatever you can to keep their spirits up.

“It’s so heartbreaking to watch a child having all these painful procedures done and there’s no rhyme or reason to it for them and you’re surrounded by other sick kids as well.

“Hospital is a parallel universe in their life that you don’t ever want to know about until you need it.

“It’s just too sad. They’re just kids – it’s just not fair.”

Mary-Elizabeth lost her beautiful hair, her eyelashes, her laugh. Treatment was arduous and painful for the whole family to endure.

“You lose your child during that period,” Ms Travers said.

“Chemotherapy, those toxic drugs are one thing, but the steroids are the really hard treatment to handle. It really changes their personality.

“They’re not the same child. They don’t have a sense of humour, they just get so angry, grumpy and uncomfortable.”

Mary-Elizabeth with her brothers Henry and Jack, whose cord blood and tissues were preserved to help in his sister’s treatment.

And then halfway through Mary-Elizabeth’s treatment another discovery floored the family. Travers was pregnant with their third child at the age of 42.

“It was during the beginning of her treatment when we were in and out of hospital, I was basically sleeping there and then Rod’s parents came out of Brazil and my mum came back to Australia from the UK for support,” she said.

“The Brazilians were sleeping in our bed, I was sleeping on the floor with Mary-Elizabeth in her room if I was at home, or I’d be on this fold-up in the hospital. I was stressed to the eyeballs and 42 years old and basically never saw my husband but somehow I was pregnant.

“He really is a miracle baby.

“It was so incredible, but it was also so tough. I was having to sleep on the fold-out bed in the hospital, heavily pregnant, having to pick her up all the time because she was unwell and carrying her constantly.

“But he’s just this gift and he and Mary-Elizabeth have a very cute connection – he’s adorable.”

At Jack’s birth, cord blood and tissue were collected and stored with Cell Care, offering a potentially lifesaving elixir for Mary-Elizabeth, should she ever need it.

Stem cell therapy has successfully been used to treat blood cancers along with 80 other medical conditions.

Ms Travers had researched the government collection agencies but they had been shut down due to Covid, and incredibly, Cell Care offered the service free of charge for siblings of children with cancer.

The organisation’s commercial director David Wragg said the group stored newborn umbilical cord stem cells for more than 200,000 families across Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and the number of parents storing their child’s cord blood and tissue cells was growing significantly.

The family shortly after Jack was born.

“The number of approved indications for the use of umbilical cord-derived stem cells has expanded from 33 in 2008 to over 80 today,” he said.

“We expect this number will increase exponentially in the future with as many as 1100 clinical trials exploring the potential use of cord blood and tissue cells for use in such conditions as cerebral palsy, type-1 diabetes and acquired hearing loss.”

Today, beautiful and happy Mary-Elizabeth is almost five. She is still taking oral chemotherapy every day, with monthly visits to the hospital and panic stations if she gets a fever for whatever reason.

She is due to finish treatment on New Year’s Day, ready to start big school in February.

“She’s good,” Ms Travers smiles.

“The dirty, horrible word in kid’s cancer is relapse – and you hate talking about it and you hate thinking about it – but she has an 85 per cent chance of it never coming back.

“But I’m taking her temperature constantly and it’s so stressful.

“When she’s good, we’re all good. But as soon as she starts going down, everything changes and you just fall apart. But we do so much praying and I’ve been to the Mary MacKillop chapel – she was named after Mary MacKillop, you see.

“The sisters have been incredible – they sent us a little relic, and I’m going to sew it into Mary-Elizabeth’s school uniform when the time comes to protect her.

“I’m not hardcore religious or anything, but when you’re going through something like that, you just reach for whatever you can.

“Mary-Elizabeth is almost at the two-year mark and it’s a five-year journey. Kids are only classified as beating leukaemia if they remain cancer free for five years – so we will keep on praying.”