Real Life

Sisters’ life-saving bond

Like most siblings, Janice and Tayla Blank occasionally fight. But when big sister Janice starts getting too bossy, little sister Tayla knows how to stop her in her tracks.

She says, “Be nice to me – I saved your life.”

Aucklander Janice (22) says, “There’s not much I can say to that. It’s true – without her I wouldn’t be here.”

Tayla (14) gave Janice the gift of life by donating her bone marrow to her sick older sister. She was just a year old at the time and it’s only recently that Tayla has been able to fully understand what a difference she’s made to her sister’s life. Janice says as she’s grown up, she’s learned to appreciate how lucky she is.

She may look the picture of health now, but when she was nine Janice came very close to dying after she was diagnosed with a rare and serious blood disorder, aplastic anaemia. She did technically die after having a severe allergic reaction to medication in hospital. “She was dead, but they brought her back to life,” says mum Donna Richards.

The stricken youngster also had part of her heart ripped when a central line was taken out, and nearly had her leg amputated after treatment led to her developing severe ulcers that became infected. “We were told the leg would have to come off, but luckily we got a second opinion and that doctor said no, and put her on antibiotics. It worked, but it took her five months to recover.”

The first sign that Janice was sick came when she suddenly developed lots of bruises on her arm for no obvious reason. “one of the girls at school asked if her mum beat her up,” recalls Donna (50).

After tests at the doctor’s and the hospital in Whangarei where they were living at the time, Donna was told to get Janice to Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital as soon as possible, but she wasn’t told why. “I thought we would be in hospital for maybe two days. It turned out to be 18 months.”

At Starship, Donna, whose marriage had just broken up, learned Janice had aplastic anaemia, in which bone marrow stops making enough new blood cells. This can lead to fatigue, an inability to fight infections, blood that won’t clot and even heart failure.

Untreated and severe cases can be fatal.

The treatment Janice was given to try to get her bone marrow working properly again – drugs made from horse and rabbit blood – was unsuccessful. The only option was a bone marrow transplant, and thankfully baby Tayla was a perfect match.

But it was no simple matter. First, Janice needed chemotherapy to clear her immune system. “It was pretty horrible,” says Janice. “I was pulling out big handfuls of my hair.”

She also had several baby teeth pulled in case they came loose during the operation.

The surgery was also tough on Tayla, whose bone marrow was removed from her hips with huge needles. “I was too young to remember, but I still have the scars,” she says.

Fortunately both girls came through the nerve-wracking procedure, and Janice’s new immune system – provided by Tayla’s bone marrow – began functioning properly.

But the nightmare wasn’t over. For several years Janice had to take anti-rejection drugs that made her gain weight and stopped her hair from growing back. When she returned to school, her classmates were unforgiving.

“I got teased a lot. only one friend stuck by me in primary school, and that was someone whose mum had passed away from breast cancer.”

Although she’s now fully recovered, the drugs damaged both of her ovaries and she may not be able to have children.

“The important thing is that I’m still here, and I’m very happy about that.”

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