At Children's, glimmers of hope for kids big and small

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 1:39 PM

The patients couldn't be more different. In one room is a teenage boy who's never been sick a day in his life. In the other is a toddler who has been under the care of doctors since she was 6 months old. Hovering over each are their mothers.

In one of the rooms in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children's National Medical Center is Sydney Hodges, 20 months. Just now, her body can't fight off infection. But Sydney seems anything but fragile. She's sitting up in bed, and when a nurse offers one of those plastic ring-toss games, Sydney is only too happy to play along.

In another room is Alonzo Montgomery, 17. Alonzo is sedated, a tube in his throat is breathing for him. Three different types of antibiotics course through his veins, a cocktail doctors hope will defeat the mysterious infection that started to weaken him around Thanksgiving.

"This is just freaky," says Alonzo's mother, Shereen Lanier. "It's out of nowhere."

As best as anyone can tell, Alonzo injured his hip jumping out of a swing at a recreation center in Germantown. ("Don't say 'playground,' " says Shereen, mindful of her son's preference.) He and his friends like to see who can launch themselves the farthest when the swing is at its apogee. Alonzo landed hard, and a few days later he found it difficult to walk. What at first seemed like a bruise turned out to be a staphylococcus aureus infection that had spread to muscle and bone.

"It's unclear where the infection came from," said Michael Spaeder, the intensive-care doctor caring for Alonzo. By the time he had been transported to Children's, Alonzo had a high heart rate and a high fever and was sweating profusely. "He looked very ill," Spaeder says.

But not so ill that he couldn't make one observation. Says Shereen: "He joked, 'Mom, they took so much blood, when I leave they'll need to give some back.' "

Pockets of infection deep in the muscle were drained. Alonzo will be on intravenous antibiotics for at least six weeks.

"They're chipping away at the infection," Shereen says. "It's going to be a long process." The signs are good, though. Since I saw him, Alonzo's breathing tube was removed and he's been moved out of intensive care.

Sydney was 6 months old when her leukemia was diagnosed, and she has spent so much time in the hospital, says her mother, Bettina, that everyone seems to know her. "She loves Oodles of Noodles," Bettina says. "They call her the Oodles of Noodles Queen."

Sydney relapsed after earlier chemotherapy. Doctors have just tried something new: a transplant of stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood.

"It's a very small volume, but it's a very rich source of stem cells," says David Jacobsohn, chief of the hospital's blood and marrow transplant program. About 100 milliliters - or 3.5 ounces - can treat a patient.

Before the transplant, doctors wiped out Sydney's old immune system. Like a new operating system installed on a reformatted hard drive, her new immune system is whirring away, her vital white blood cell counts slowly coming up. (So complete was Sydney's reboot that she'll need to be reimmunized.)

"Her personality is coming back," says Bettina, who has been inspired by Sydney to organize bone marrow drives.

"She is an absolute riot," says transplant physician Jane Sande.

"She yelled at me," says Matt Sharron, a critical care physician in the PICU.

When the Oodles of Noodles Queen is yelling at her doctors, you know she's getting better.

Time to help

Wouldn't a big fat tax deduction look good about now? Then howzabout making a donation to Children's Hospital? Your gift will help pay the bills of under-insured kids. Please send a check or money order (payable to Children's Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. To donate online with a credit card, go to or call 301-565-8501.

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