A 10% chance of life
While in the waiting room for a routine checkup, 5-year-old Chanelle Matthee started getting red dots around her eyes, a symptom of low platelets. Her doctor ran a blood test, and that same day, Chanelle was diagnosed with Aplastic Anaemia. The only cure would be a bone marrow transplant.
With a weakened immune system and at risk of uncontrollable bleeding, Chanelle was taken out of preschool and began treatment. She bruised at the slightest human contact, and even trying to get an intravenous line in at the hospital was a challenge, because Chanelle’s veins kept collapsing. In total, Chanelle received over 70 blood transfusions. But if an illness hit the hospital, Chanelle couldn’t go in for treatment, even if she was in desperate need.
“One time we couldn’t go in because there was a gastro-pandemic,” she remembers. “Blood blisters started forming in my mouth and bursting and I had to sleep upright to keep myself from choking on my own blood in my sleep.”
A year and a half after her diagnosis, Chanelle’s miracle donor was found in Germany by We Delete Blood Cancer (DKMS), a nonprofit bone marrow donor organisation based in Germany. Chanelle was transported to Groote Schuur Hospital to begin chemotherapy. She remembers the day her hair started falling out, just before her 7th birthday. We are eternally grateful for DKMS for coming through for Chanelle all the way from Germany. DKMS is one of our trusted partners and Chanelle is alive in large part due to their assistance in finding her a donor.
Chanelle’s donor mobilised so well that they collected enough cells for two transplants. But her body rejected the first transplant, then the second. Her health rapidly declined. The doctors told Chanelle’s parents that she had less than a 10% chance of survival and only two weeks to live. We really commend both Chanelle and her parents’ courage throughout this journey. For someone so young to have to go through this–I cannot fathom how scary this must have been for everyone involved. It’s a humbling reminder that you never know when something like this will happen to you or a loved one, and in the blessed time that we do have, we must help those in their time of need.
“I came to the realization that I was dying,” Chanelle remembers. “I had peace about dying. I was so tired of fighting. But I was afraid for the people I was leaving behind. How would they cope if I go?” Staying strong for your loved ones kept you going–an example of love at its finest. I know they are so proud of you for your fighting spirit–and we are too, here at the SABMR!
The last resort would be a full bone marrow transplant, but they weren’t sure she would survive the chemotherapy and radiation to prepare for it. Chanelle remembers the radiation vividly. “I’d lay on this hard table for hours and they’d draw on me to direct the laser,” she says. “I was crying so hard that one of the nurses burst into tears and ran from the room. She came back with little bean bags and put them all around me to try to make it better.” Chanelle’s mom would stand behind the protective wall and tell Chanelle stories to entertain her.
Miraculously, the third transplant was a success, and Chanelle’s new bone marrow engrafted. Her doctor said that he didn’t know of any other child Chanelle’s age who had survived three transplants. It took Chanelle two years to regain her strength, and while the treatments took a toll on her health – including osteoporosis, stunted growth, reproductivity loss, and bouts of depression – Chanelle still considers herself lucky. “I’m not the healthiest person on the planet, but I’m not the sickest,” she says.
When Chanelle was 11, four years after her third bone marrow transplant, she and her family were invited by DKMS to fly to Germany to meet her donor. DKMS surprised Chanelle’s family with a welcome party at the airport, which included her donor Dietmar.
“This man came up and hugged me and he was crying,” Chanelle remembers. “He didn’t speak a word of English, but he was so happy to see us.” That day, Chanelle and her parents met Dietmar’s family, including his wife, who spoke English, and his daughter Jacqueline, who was only two years younger than Chanelle. Dietmar registered with the DKMS when he saw an advertisement for a little girl who needed bone marrow, and two years later Chanelle needed a match. I do believe that some things are meant to be, and this seems like one of those moments. Dietmar signed up to save a young girl, and that’s exactly what he did when he donated for Chanelle. Thank you, Dietmar!
Today, Chanelle is 22, finishing her GED, and hopes to go into physiotherapy. But for now? “I’m just living in the present,” she says. “The past is something we cannot change, and the future is only for God to know, so I’m going to be as happy as I can be right now.”
And for all of the people out there still waiting for a lifesaving medical treatment, Chanelle shares a word of hope: “Miracles do still happen.”Chanelle, your story is so special to us at the SABMR. Through extreme highs and lows, you weathered the storms with grace far beyond your young years. May you continue being an inspiration to many as you live a long and fulfilling life!
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