While her high school senior peers were trying on prom dresses and applying to college, Sydnie Romero was grappling with a decision that would be tough for anyone, let alone a chronically ill 17-year-old.
Sydnie was born with sickle cell disease, a genetic disorder in which bone marrow produces defective hemoglobin that can block blood supply to parts of the body, resulting in “pain crises,” which are episodes of severe pain that can last for hours to days. Those with sickle cell disease are also at risk of debilitating strokes.
During her early childhood, Sydnie had few pain crises, but once she entered her teen years, the events became frequent and life altering.
“It was difficult for her to get through the school year. We would begin in the fall, but before long she would have to be hospitalized and then home schooled due to the complications of her disease,” recalls Sydnie’s mother, Xzavia Vaz.
Dreams of graduating and going off to college to study medicine seemed far away, as the science- loving teen struggled with her health.
As Sydnie’s quality of life declined, the medical team at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Cancer and Blood Disorders Center looked for answers. The care team led by Dr. Athena Pefkarou referred her to the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, conveying that it might be time for the family to consider a bone marrow transplant, which can provide a cure for sickle cell disorder.
A bone marrow transplant is not without risks. The patient’s entire immune system is destroyed and then gradually rebuilt as the transplanted marrow takes hold. As a result, transplant patients are hospitalized, often for many weeks at a time in a specialized hospital unit until it is safe for them to resume life at home. The recovery of the immune system continues to take up to a year after transplant, which requires precautions even after discharge.
“I told Sydnie that the choice was hers,” recalls Xzavia. Sydnie decided that if her younger sister Symone was a bone marrow match and could serve as the donor, she would go through with the procedure.”
Happily, Symone was indeed a match. The girls, already close friends, bonded still further due to the shared medical journey. And in late January 2016, after the December 2015 transplant, Sydnie was able to return home to begin her new life.
“It was pretty scary to do the transplant, but I’m so glad I did,” said Sydnie, who is now attending college and hopes one day to make a difference for other people by becoming a doctor.
“It’s amazing not to have to worry about whether I will be able to finish the school year,” she said. “Life is so much simpler now.”