Cancer patient, 6, from Duluth, gets precious gift from baby sisterSomeday, 18-month-old Katy Linberg will know that it was her umbilical-cord blood that gave her 6-year-old sister, Annika, renewed hope in her battle with leukemia.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
At 18 months old, Katy Linberg doesn’t understand that she has given her big sister the best present imaginable.
Someday, Katy will know that it was the blood from her umbilical cord saved at her birth that gave 6-year-old Annika renewed hope in her battle with leukemia.
The Linberg family of Duluth will spend Christmas at the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis with even more reason to celebrate, dad Kurt said. Annika is expected to be released today from University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital, 43 days after her bone marrow transplant.
“It’s kind of a roller coaster, so we’re never really sure how things are going to go, but we’re getting everything ready to get out of the hospital tomorrow,” Kurt Linberg said on Friday, his 52nd birthday. “So it’s a fabulous Christmas present.”
Annika’s journey started in 2008 when she was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, frequently referred to as APL, just after her third birthday. It’s a rare form of leukemia in children, the family learned. She underwent chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul. The cancer went into remission, and the family had reason to feel optimistic. A relapse of APL was unlikely, the Linbergs knew.
All of the evidence bore that out.
“She was just like a normal kid from when she recovered from the first round of chemo when she was 3,” Kurt Linberg said. “They tested her bone marrow and had one of the most sophisticated tests on the planet at Mayo (Clinic), and they said no sign of cancer. So we thought we were out of the woods.”
But Annika’s doctors had suggested a precaution, just in case the unthinkable happened.
Adrienne Linberg was pregnant with Katy when Annika was diagnosed in 2008. The chief oncologist said they should have the cord blood at birth saved and tested. If it was a match, the Linbergs were told, the University of Minnesota would save it at no charge.
It was a match.
Parents have four options with their baby’s cord blood, according to information from the National Marrow Donor Program website. The blood can be discarded. It can be donated to a public cord blood bank and used for the stem cells for anyone who is a match. It can be saved for exclusive use by the family in a private cord blood bank for a fee plus yearly storage costs. But when there is a sibling with a potential medical need, it can be saved for the family at little or no cost. That was the category the Linbergs fell into.
Adrienne Linberg started suspecting the unthinkable in late July of this year. She noticed that Annika was bruising and wasn’t energetic, Kurt Linberg said.
That’s not the Annika people know, family friend Jessica Kramer said. “She’s just so energetic, and she loves to sing and she loves art and she loves being with her friends.”
A bone marrow biopsy on Aug. 4 confirmed that the cancer returned. Annika went through one phase of chemotherapy treatments in Duluth, but another biopsy on Labor Day determined that the cancer had gained strength. They left in the middle of the night and started hard-core chemo the next morning at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, Kramer said.
Since then, the Linberg family has called the Ronald McDonald House home. Kurt Linberg, the dean of the Business and Technology School at the College of St. Scholastica, said he has been able to keep up with his work from Scholastica’s satellite campus in the Twin Cities.
“We have friends now from around the world,” he said. “There’s a family from Peru. Their daughter had open-heart surgery. There’s a family from Argentina. … A whole clan from India. And they’re all coming to Minnesota for the expert care that they get.”
The University of Minnesota was the site of the world’s first bone marrow transplant more than 40 years ago and still was one of the few places that could possibly have handled Annika’s transplant, he said. That it was a 2½-hour drive from home made it possible for friends to come and help out — and they did.
“My wife about two months ago could see that we needed some help,” Kurt Linberg said. “So she put out a request for friends and family to give up a week of their vacation to come so that (Katy) would have more consistent care instead of being shuffled around every day.”
Among those who answered the call was Kramer, who said she met Adrienne Linberg in 2010 when both volunteered for the Junior League of Duluth’s Playfront project. “It was a very moving experience to be living there for a week,” Kramer said.
It happened to be Kramer’s week on Nov. 11, when the bone marrow transplant took place. The family invited Jim Bovin, a Minneapolis photographer who donates his services to families at the Ronald McDonald House, to join them.
Bovin, 41, a photojournalist for 17 years, said he has been taking pictures for Ronald McDonald families for 6½ years, first in Milwaukee, then in the Twin Cities. But he had never before been asked to stay for a transplant, Bovin said.
“I was kind of blown away by it, and it was an honor to do that for the family,” he said.
The transplant went smoothly and quickly.
“It was kind of amazingly anticlimactic in a way,” Kramer said. “This little bag of blood — (they) hooked it up, and we watched it drip in. It took about 15 minutes. … We just watched and prayed, frankly.”
Annika continued to be a sick little girl for weeks after the transplant.
“She had to have a feeding tube,” Kurt Linberg said. “About a week ago … she threw up so violently that she threw up the tube. Now, most parents would have gotten very nervous and upset about that, but she did that when she was 3.”
Just on Wednesday, there was a milestone.
“Two nights ago I was here, and she was watching some comics on TV and she started giggling,” he said. “And then she watched a movie afterwards, and she started singing. And those were the first giggles and the first time that she’s sung in probably two or three months.
“She’s felt pretty bad. But she’s starting to feel better, starting to be her true self. The big thing is we’ve had probably a million people praying for us.”
The Linbergs are looking forward to celebrating Christmas at the Ronald McDonald House with the volunteers and their new friends, he said. But they’re also looking forward to returning to Duluth in about a month, when Annika is cleared to go.
“When we moved to Duluth three years ago to take this job at Scholastica, many people told us that Duluth was kind of closed, and it was kind of hard to meet friends,” he said. “We’ve been just so surprised at how great the people have been there. We’ve got some really strong friendships, and it’s a great place to live.”