In 2010, then 5-year-old Emily Whitehead had just gone to her annual checkup and was declared healthy.
But a week later, Emily’s mom, Kari, noticed that her daughter had bruises on odd parts of her body, including her back and stomach. Her gums started bleeding, and she was waking up in the middle of the night due to unbearable pain.
When Kari, 46, Googled the symptoms, she learned they were the classic signs of leukemia. The following day, she and her husband, Tom, 53, took Emily to the doctor.
A few days later, the little girl was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The doctors at Penn State Health in Hershey, Pennsylvania, recommended a 26-month chemotherapy treatment for Emily.
The first few weeks of the regime were especially difficult. Emily ran dangerously high fevers and developed a rare infection that almost caused her to lose both her legs.
But despite the challenges, Emily went into remission a month later.
“We had a rough start, but the doctors said when chemotherapy works for these kids, it works,” Kari said.
But in October 2011, the then 6-year-old Emily relapsed and was given a 30% chance of survival.
“The news was more devastating to us than her original diagnosis,” Tom said. “I told Emily that if I had to crawl to the North Pole, I would, if that’s what it took to find someone to fix her.”
Tom took Emily to get a second opinion at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
While she spent most of the succeeding four months in the hospital preparing for a bone marrow transplant in February 2012, Tom and Kari began calling experts to learn about other treatment options.
“I was just praying like, ‘God, if you’re up there, we need help right now.’ I was kind of asleep but not really and I suddenly saw Emily at CHOP. And I could see her getting better,” Tom recalled.
Tom, a lead lineman at a power company, had clear visions of Emily’s recovery, which he retold in his book, “Praying for Emily: The Faith, Science, and Miracles that Saved Our Daughter.”
After seeing those visions, Tom knew Emily would be okay.
Emily, now 17, recalls that her parents tried to make her smile every day. She said that’s “something really special” that she remembers.
Towards the end of February, Emily’s condition had regressed to the point that she was no longer eligible for a transplant. With that, the family had run out of options.
But CHOP had some good news for them. Emily’s doctors said that after a year of completing the required paperwork, the FDA and other committees had approved CHOP’s Phase 1 clinical trial for CAR T-Cell therapy in kids.
Emily became the very first pediatric patient.
The treatment came with many risks, but it was a better alternative than going home to hospice and watching Emily wither away.
And consistent with Tom’s visions, the CAR T-cell therapy worked. On May 10, 2012, 23 days after starting the treatment, a bone marrow test revealed that Emily was finally cancer-free.
“It was a total shock after everything we she’d been through,” said Kari. “We were just so excited.”
Dr. Stephan Grupp, Emily’s doctor and director of the Susan S. and Stephen P. Kelly Center for Cancer Immunotherapy, said that Emily was not expected to make it. But miraculously, all of the cancer disappeared.
CAR T-cell therapy involves taking T-cells—a white blood cell critical in fighting infections—from the body, and genetically engineering them in a laboratory over three weeks to teach them how to fight the cancer. Then, the trained T-cells will be put back in the patient’s blood.
Since Emily, over 15,000 people with blood cancer have successfully undergone the treatment worldwide.
“You could argue this is a brand-new field of medicine. Now, we just have to find the right recipe to treat all types of cancer,” said Dr. Grupp.
Ever since, Emily, who recently got her driver’s license, has remained cancer-free. When she turned 17 in May, she was declared officially cured. She celebrates 10 years of being cancer-free.
In 2015, their family started the Emily Whitehead Foundation to raise awareness about new childhood cancer treatments and help others dealing with the illness.
“Spreading awareness about treatments like CAR T-cell is really important to me,” Emily said. “It’s a miracle I’m alive — and I am so grateful.”
Click on the video below from Today to hear Emily, Kari, and Tom talk about this incredible story of healing.
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