When doctors told Honduran mother Marelyn Salgado that she could donate bone marrow cells to her twins, she knew she had to.
“I no longer wanted to see them sick. Always sick, always sick. I didn’t have time to [tener] a normal life,” Salgado said.
For seven long years, Salgado has watched her sons, Aaron and Ryan Salgado, suffer from severe sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder present from birth that deforms red blood cells, the cells responsible for carrying oxygen to all parts of the body.
Sickle cell disease affects about 100,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mostly people with sub-Saharan African ancestry, but Latino people, like the Salgado family, can also get it.
The only known cure is to destroy a person’s unhealthy red blood cells and then replace them with healthy stem cells, special cells created in the bone marrow that can develop into red blood cells. The procedure has a 95% survival rate in children with sickle cell disease, according to the American Society of Hematology. The procedure is done only in extreme cases due to the possibility of long-term complications or even death.
Salgado found out he could donate his bone marrow three years ago, but the pandemic delayed the procedure. Then one of his children almost died. She said the children’s hematologist, a doctor who specializes in blood disorders, called AdventHealth for Children. The staff approached Salgado and told her the time had come, if she was willing.
Salgado decided to give himself an early Mother’s Day gift.
“I was nervous. I prayed a lot, because that gave me comfort. Then I felt peace. And then I said, ‘this is the time,’” she said.
In early March, Salgado and her children traveled from Palm Beach Gardens to Orlando for the procedure. About two months later, the children are recovering and are staying with Salgado at a Ronald McDonald House next to the hospital so they can attend follow-up appointments.
Salgado said the children are focused on taking it easy and healing for now, dealing with symptoms like nausea and discomfort from the procedure, but when they recover, the future will be a far cry from their former lives.
Even keeping a job used to be impossible because of Ryan and Aaron’s frequent hospital stays, Salgado said. They were in almost constant pain because their misshapen red blood cells got stuck in small blood vessels and obstructed blood flow, which can also cause strokes. Repeated illness episodes prevented them from attending school regularly.
“I have to start now from scratch with a normal life with them,” Salgado said. “Everything is going to be different.”
Dr. Susan Kelly, medical director of pediatric cell therapy at AdventHealth for Children, led the transplant effort. AdventHealth for Children has performed 146 transplants since 2016.
In an interview provided by AdventHealth, Kelly said Salgado may not have been able to save her children just a few years ago.
Although stem cell donation has been around for decades, previously it could only be done in people with genetically similar tissue, leaving many without donors, Kelly said. Recent innovations in health technology have allowed a father, who shares only half of his genes with his children, to donate half-matched stem cells, Kelly explained.
At this time, there are not many programs in the Southeast that offer this type of transplant. Kelly expects the procedure to become more popular in the coming years.
“It is scary to think about having a transplant, but when you look at what they offer you, I would seriously recommend it to anyone who might consider it as an option,” he said. “We have the ability to offer them the potential to have a life without sickle cell disease, which is truly miraculous for these children.”
Salgado recommends bone marrow transplant “100%”. To other single mothers of children struggling with chronic illnesses, she shares a message of hope.
“Keep praying and trusting,” he said. “There is always a way.”
This story was published in the Orlando Sentinel by journalist Caroline Catherman.