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A Sister Steps Up to Help

By John Kelly
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page C10

When a child is seriously ill, the whole family is affected. My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, tells a story from Children's Hospital of a sister who gave a priceless gift.

Hours before he arrived at Children's Hospital for his bone marrow transplant, 8-year-old Christopher Melkonian and his friends had a pizza-and-games party at Chuck E. Cheese.

Samantha Melkonian was 10 when she donated her bone marrow to help brother Christopher battle leukemia at Children's Hospital. (Brian Lewis -- The Gazette)

_____Children's Campaign_____
Washington Post columnist John Kelly is raising money for the Children's National Medical Center, one of the nation's leading pediatric hospitals. You may make a tax-deductible contribution online anytime between Nov. 29th and Jan. 21st. Thank you for your support.
_____By John Kelly_____
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His pals pooled their winnings and bought him the grande dame of prizes: a disco ball.

Christopher's transplant and four-week recovery period were laced with this kind of benevolence. His dad, David, a software engineer, took leave from work, thanks to co-workers who donated unused sick days. When the Melkonians' house in Damascus needed cleaning and repainting before Christopher could return home (bacteria threatened his fragile immune system), neighbors and church members took care of it.

The biggest contribution of all, though? Christopher's older sister, Samantha, donated her bone marrow to help her brother fight leukemia.

It was Christopher's second battle with the disease. In October 2002, doctors found that he had a high-risk case of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or cancer of the white blood cells, the most common cancer in children. After just two weeks of extensive chemotherapy, Christopher went into remission. Doctors hoped continued therapy would expunge the cancer.

In April 2004, it resurfaced in his spinal cord. The options: two years of intense chemo or a bone marrow transplant.

Samantha, now 11, and Christopher's younger sister, Melissa, 4, were typed to see whether either was a bone marrow match for Christopher. Samantha matched perfectly.

Still, it was a scary decision. Although bone marrow harvesting is relatively benign, it was a big deal for a then-10-year-old who had never been under anesthesia. Both kids had to sign forms consenting to the operation.

Samantha's family teases her about sweating the small stuff -- "The shot didn't hurt, but when you ripped the Band-Aid off me, that hurt!" Christopher mimicked -- but their admiration is clear.

"When it came to the bone marrow harvest, she stepped up to the plate. She did great," mom Darlene said.

Watching his sister wheeled out of surgery on Aug. 17, after having 750 milliliters of bone marrow drawn from her hip, Christopher said, "I'm so proud of her."

Now, four months later, Samantha's stem cells are growing inside Christopher's marrow and producing healthy blood cells, explained Naynesh Kamani of Children's Hospital, the doctor who oversaw the transplant.

So far, it looks successful. Day 100, a post-transplant mile marker, fell on Thanksgiving.

"We thought that was pretty appropriate," Darlene said.

Christopher is back in school and no longer has to wear a surgical mask to ward off bacteria, though he still keeps one on hand when he goes back to the hospital for checkups. He can eat copious amounts of Kentucky Fried Chicken, his favorite. The disco ball, once an ornament of his hospital room, now hangs in his freshly repainted bedroom.

If Christopher is still cancer-free in two years, that will be a good sign. Meanwhile, this KFC-loving, soccer-playing, math-solving trouper has a full load of activities.

And as always, he has his big sister looking out for him.

How to Help

You may not be able to donate your bone marrow, but you can give a monetary gift to help ensure that Children's Hospital will always be able to provide treatment to young cancer patients.

Our goal by Jan. 21 is $600,000.

So far, we've raised $84,381.99.

Here's how to contribute: Make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To contribute by credit card online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and click on "Make a Donation." You'll be greeted by a pop-up that takes you right to the donation page.

To contribute by Visa or MasterCard by phone, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200, then punch in KIDS and follow the instructions.

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