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2-Year-Old 'Superhero' Saves 8-Year-Old Sister's Life With Bone Marrow Donation After Rare Cancer Diagnosis

Photo: Fizkes / Shutterstock
Brother Sister

In December of 2020, Melanie Gartner noticed that her daughter was looking paler than usual.

Eight-year-old Journey also had a lingering cold and was coughing. Her mother took her to the doctor, who treated the cough and ran some blood tests on the little girl just in case.

The Gartner family had no idea that their lives were about to be turned upside down.

“Just as we were walking in the door I received a call from my doctor,” Melanie recalled, “and he said, 'I would like to go over Journey's lab work, please have a seat.’” 

“As soon as he said that, I knew that something was really wrong.”

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The tests had revealed that Journey had an extremely low blood cell count, causing her washed-out pallor.

Doctors suspected Leukemia, but Journey was actually diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare disorder that causes defective blood cell production and is considered a type of cancer – and can quickly progress to Leukemia if not treated. 

Journey explained the condition in her own words: “My cells are lower, and they are funky, and my bone marrow doesn't work right.”

“I was absolutely terrified,” said Melanie, who felt similarly throughout her own recent battle with breast cancer. “Even more so because she’s my little girl.”

Journey spent her first night away from home at the Boston Children’s Hospital last month. She said she “was scared to go in the hospital,” but Melanie remained by her daughter’s side, and she was comforted by kind hospital staff.

Journey was given a bone marrow biopsy and returned shortly afterward for cancer treatments. The eight-year-old underwent a chest port placement and almost a week of chemotherapy.

According to her mother, she braved the procedures “beautifully.”

If the disease was to be halted, the Gartners were told, Journey would need a bone marrow transplant.

The family began the desperate search for a donor. They campaigned on social media for Be The Match, an organization that pairs up patients with potential bone marrow donors, and even hosted a “live drive” event to encourage members of their community to participate in the program. 

Friends and family members signed up for donor testing and flooded the Gartners with supportive messages. A GoFundMe page was created by a family friend to assist with medical bills and garnered thousands of dollars in donations.

But a match for Journey still did not materialize.

Finding a donor in these situations can be extremely difficult. Bone marrow matching is more complex than blood types, as the marrow must be tested for at least six distinct markers.

Connecting with an unrelated donor is not ensured, and the process can be time-consuming, but finding a donor in one’s immediate family is rare. The Institute of Justice reports that “only 30 percent of patients who need a bone marrow transplant have a matching donor in their families.” 

Miraculously, Journey did: Her younger brother, two-year-old Ezra, is a perfect match to her bone marrow.

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Pediatric oncologist Daniel Calloway, who is responsible for Journey’s care, explained that sibling matches like this are a rarity. 

"Each sibling has a 25 percent chance of being a match," said Dr. Callaway. Luckily, in Journey’s case, "her brother Ezra is actually a match for her.”

Since the young girl’s doctors thought her condition may have been inherited, they tested Ezra for the same genetic mutation. The toddler was cleared.

Journey and Ezra’s parents received the good news on Monday, February 22. They were overjoyed.

“At first I thought Melanie was teasing me because it was so quick,” David Gartner told reporters. “It was one of those surreal, you’re kidding me moments. I was in my head planning on this long process to find one and was there even going to be [a match].”

He described the donation process his children will go through.

“Ezra will be admitted for one day, and they will actually take bone marrow from both hips. That’s how they get the donation,” David explained. “That same day, Journey gets an infusion. And then she gets his bone marrow cells into her and it regenerates into healthy bone marrow. We hope.”

The family will travel to Boston Children’s hospital at the end of the month in order to start the procedure.

Ezra will have “a pretty easy recovery” from the donation, Melanie said.

“But he gets to be his sister's superhero for life.”

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Allie McGlone is a writer who covers a variety of topics for YourTango, including pop culture and entertainment.