For the first three years of her life, Ellia was “the child who never got sick”.
“We were never worried about her,” says Jenna Yee, Elia’s mother. “She was always very lively and fun and had this incredibly dynamic personality. We knew from the start that she was a fighter. “
But when Ellia was 3 years old, she developed a fever and became lethargic. Jenna Yee took her to a walk-in clinic where she was prescribed antibiotics for an ear infection. A few days later, Ellia woke up with a rash on her arms and legs and red spots on her neck.
Jenna Yee took Ellia to her pediatrician, who sent her to the Seattle Children’s Emergency Room for an urgent blood test. Elia’s father, Nathan Yee, left work to meet her there.
Nathan Yee and Jenna Yee both have cancer research experience. Jenna Yee was a toxicologist working on clinical cancer studies, and Nathan Yee helped develop immunotherapy treatments for adults with leukemia and lymphoma at Juno Therapeutics.
“When I heard Ellia’s symptoms, my first reaction was a total denial,” says Nathan Yee. “I was sure that nothing was seriously wrong. But when I drove to the emergency room, I realized the truth was screaming in my face. Ellia had classic pediatric leukemia. “
How serious is it
Despite their background knowledge, neither parent wanted to admit their daughter could have cancer – until they saw her test results. There were malignant cells in Ellia’s blood, likely caused by acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Jenna Yee was holding Ellia and crying silently after hearing the news.
“I felt a touch of panic, but I didn’t mean to scare Ellia,” she says. “My thoughts were everywhere. I asked myself, ‘Is this that serious? Are we going to lose her? ‘”
It took me a month to determine how serious Ellias leukemia was. She immediately started chemotherapy while her care team waited to see if her cancer responded to treatment. If so, her leukemia would be the standard risk. If not, it would be high risk and much more difficult to treat.
The best place for Ellia
“Waiting for a prognosis must have been devastating for her,” says Dr. Todd Cooper, Ellias oncologist and director of the Seattle Children’s High-Risk Leukemia Program. “I told Nathan, ‘If Ellia doesn’t respond to therapy, this is the best place for her.'”
Since 2018, the high-risk leukemia program has offered families another point of contact if their child runs out of treatment options.
Dr. Cooper and Dr. Marie Bleakley, a Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Specialist at Seattle Children’s launched the multidisciplinary program to provide the most up-to-date treatments and access to clinical research studies to patients with high-risk leukemia.
Fortunately, Ellia responded well to chemotherapy. She was in remission 28 days after her diagnosis.
“When you hear the words ‘your daughter is in remission,’ you can finally breathe again,” said Nathan Yee. “It feels like you’ve breathed in the stress, pain, and agony for so long, and suddenly your body returns. It is exhalation; it is joy. You become a whole from a shell of a person. “
Ellia had two more years of treatment that included high-dose steroids and chemotherapy. The steroids made her hungry and irritable all the time. Many medications made her vomit. She even had a seizure towards the end of the treatment.
Despite all of this, the Yees never believed they would lose Ellia.
“I’ve always felt very safe at Seattle Children’s,” said Jenna Yee. “From the start I thought, ‘You have her. She gets what she needs. ‘”
Help those who are less fortunate
During Elia’s treatment, the Yees came into contact with other families who had a child with leukemia. Some lived far from the hospital and had to travel for treatment. Others had financial problems. Most had known little or nothing about leukemia when their child was diagnosed.
Most heartbreaking were the parents of children with high-risk leukemia.
“These families were afraid that their child would not survive,” recalls Nathan Yee. “They saw their child wither away before them. We have never had to experience that before. We knew how lucky we were and decided that if we could do something to help those who weren’t so lucky, we would. “
While Ellia was still receiving treatment, the Yee family donated $ 25,000 to start the FC community campaign in support of the high-risk leukemia program for children.
“I was exhausted,” said Dr. Cooper. “I’m impressed with what the Yees were able to do when their child was receiving intensive therapy. It was absolutely humiliating for her to have the prospect of helping others early on. “
“Not only did the children provide our child with first-class care, the clinicians also showed our sympathy for the whole family.
“You gave us strength when we needed it most. We will never forget the nights when Ellia struggled and a nurse or child life specialist knew how to make things better for her. That made it all better for all of us.
“We have never doubted that Children’s is the right place, and we are eternally grateful that Ellia received her care there.”
– Nathan Yee, Ellia’s father
The difference a gift can make
The Yees have raised $ 197,000 so far for the FC Community Campaign. One area that is supported by donations is the development of new treatments and clinical trials for high-risk leukemia patients.
“There is a huge gap between what the National Cancer Institute and various companies pay and the real cost of bringing new treatment options to these children,” says Dr. Cooper. “This is where philanthropy comes in.”
The FC Community Campaign also supports the compassionate and emergency use of medication, chemotherapy, or other treatments for children whose leukemia has not responded to any other treatments.
“We are currently treating a child – in an emergency – with a drug that was previously only used in adults,” says Dr. Cooper. “It is an example of how we leave no stone unturned when it comes to helping our patients.”
Four years later
Ellia is now a healthy, smart, spirited 7 year old. She has been in remission for four years.
“She is a force!” said Jenna. “She has limitless energy and makes me laugh every day. I love that she is so confident and confident. She makes our family so happy! “
While Ellia’s treatment ended years ago, the Yees continue to raise funds for families who are not as happy as them.
“We can change the results for these children,” said Nathan Yee. “And we believe donating to Seattle Children’s is the way to do that.”
– Rose Ibarra