Lauren Russell, regional director at LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, says in her 21 years with the company, she has never seen a greater swell of support for an individual as she recently witnessed for 3-year-old Elena Howard.
It was Jan. 6, 2022, when Elena’s mother, Haley Howard, discovered a bruise on Elena’s side.
“Alarms immediately went off in my head,” said Howard, a former pediatrician. “The bruise was large and on a soft tissue area. We went to the doctor the next morning and I asked for bloodwork stat.”
Elena’s pediatrician called with results later that day. As he read each one aloud — white blood cell count, hemoglobin, platelets — Howard’s screams in her head grew louder.
“I knew it was leukemia,” said Howard. “When you hear those numbers in the medical field, it’s a likely diagnosis.”
The devastated mother of five, who was recovering from a C-section she underwent just nine days prior, was told to get her daughter to a hospital immediately.
Howard, her husband, Cameron, Elena, and their newborn son, Griffin, prayed with their oldest three sons, Cannon, Crew and Corbin. They then headed to Egleston, where Elena was admitted to the oncology floor for a week.
After tests classified Elena’s cancer as high risk, it was determined her treatment would be longer and more intense than standard chemotherapies. The goal is to be as aggressive as possible to provide the best success rate.
Elena recently surpassed one year of treatment. She is almost finished with what doctors refer to as her front-line treatment and she is due to complete all treatment in May 2024. Every couple of months there are different phases, new cycles of chemotherapy introduced to attack the leukemia differently. In addition to the chemotherapies, Elena has been subjected to extremely high dose steroids, countless lumbar punctures, and she has been sedated 22 times. The busy, brown-eyed little girl has slowed down, but her happiness hasn’t faded.
“I was worried about her losing her hair,” said Howard. “It wasn’t the loss of the physical hair, but because Elena always twirled her hair as a coping mechanism. She’s handled it so well, though. She brushes the tiny bit of fuzz atop her head, looks in the mirror and says things like, ‘That’s perfect, I’m beautiful.’”
Delayed intensification is an intense phase of treatment, a last push to wipe out all the cancerous cells. This phase began Oct. 3, and by Nov. 11, Elena was experiencing rare and extreme complications. She developed a fever after a platelet transfusion, and her situation spiraled downward from there.
Elena developed typhlitis — inflammation and infection in her intestines — which made her belly swell to so much that she couldn’t breathe. She went into respiratory distress and was moved to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Though she had transfusion after transfusion, her platelet number wasn’t increasing. A normal count is 150. Elena’s was 2.
“They tested all the platelet samples they had in the blood bank, but there were no matches,” said Howard. “Cameron and I decided to write a plea on Facebook to increase the number of platelet donations. Elena is not the only child in desperate need. Any blood or platelet donation would be the answer to someone’s urgent prayer.”
Family and friends of the Howards helped make their plea go viral. With nearly 400 shares on Facebook, and a feature story on Atlanta’s WSB-TV news, their message of desperation and hope spread across the nation. Appointments were booked at multiple LifeSouth and RedCross locations, with people lining up to save a little girl’s life.
“We started getting phone calls, all for Elena Howard,” said Russell. “We’d hang up and the phone would ring again. That first day, we probably had five times the number of donors we see on a normal day. Within the first hour of the second day, I knew I needed additional team members. This was unprecedented. I get teary-eyed talking about it. We worked longer, harder days, and we did it with a smile. Our team was great, the donors were great. We had her sweet face hanging on posters at the centers which seemed to create a connection between patient and donor. It felt so personal.”
During that 19-day hospital stay, Elena received 14 blood product transfusions. As the threatening effects of the chemotherapy began to lessen, her body became more responsive to the platelets and red blood cells.
On Nov. 22, Howard created a Facebook post.
“Miracles upon miracles! Elena is showing signs of improvement. She is stable enough to be moved out of the PICU and back to the oncology floor. Her platelets are becoming more receptive. Her oncology team and transfusion doctor feel that she has multiple possible platelet donor matches. The absolutely incredible outpouring of selfless generosity through platelet and blood donations in honor of our daughter is making a lifesaving impact for so many others too. During a time of critical blood product shortages, all of you have filled a need for so many! Please continue donating! Thank you will never be enough!”
Russell said people are still showing up at LifeSouth to donate in Elena’s honor.
“Those who gave for her in November will be eligible to give again soon. They promised they’ll be back, and I believe them.”
If you would like to be a blood donor, visit www.lifesouth.org for more information.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com