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Duluth family facing child’s cancer gets a little help from friends

Elizabeth Luiten, 4, who has leukemia, lets out a big yawn Wednesday afternoon in her room at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center. Elizabeth is often tired and worn down because she has a low white blood cell count. Her IVs provide antibiotics for a strep pneumonia infection. (Bob King / / 2
Jen Luiten and her partner, Kevin Yunk, with their children Elizabeth Luiten, 4, and sister Nevaeh Yunk, 1. (Bob King / / 2

Elizabeth Luiten traded in a tricycle for a “big-girl bike” on Sunday, her fourth birthday. It was also a special day because she got to spend time with her favorite cousin, Ava. They’d spend every day together if they could.

Earlier in the day, Elizabeth was in the hospital for a high fever. It’s a familiar place for her while she re-engages in a battle with the leukemia that has followed her since she was 2. She knows the hospital as the place where she gets stuck with needles. And while she doesn’t always understand the treatments, she knows enough to tell family, “I’m sick.”  

Following the highlight of the birthday party, Elizabeth was back in the Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital later in the week. This time it’s for at least a month. She currently has strep pneumonia. After it’s treated, she’ll begin an intensive course of daily chemotherapy treatments for 30 days. She’s trying to combat a return of the leukemia she sent into remission once already.

For Luiten’s mom, 24-year-old Jen Luiten of Gary, the birthday party lingers as the last day of relief preceding a long battle ahead.

“She just had a great time,” Jen said of the party. “She was riding her bike the whole time. She was happy to be out of the hospital.”

For now, the hospital is her home. Elizabeth is making do as well as can be expected. She wears pretty pink dresses and engages in fun spats with her younger sister. She has a parade of family members staying with her overnights in the bed next to hers. Both her grandmother and great-grandmother, Vicki Luiten and Donna Bunkers, respectively, take turns staying with Elizabeth. Jen stays, too, but also works at raising another child at home.  

“This is her home till whenever right now,” Jen said from a dorm-style bench built into Elizabeth’s room.  

Elizabeth’s acute lymphoblastic leukemia will require a bone marrow transplant later this summer at the University of Minnesota’s Amplatz Children’s Hospital. Jen and her partner, Kevin Yunk — biological father to the couple’s 1-year-old daughter Nevaeh as well as Elizabeth’s practical “dad,” said Jen — both believe what they’ve been told: that the transplant “will wipe out everything,” Yunk said.

Jen and her daughter Elizabeth will be put up in the Ronald McDonald House on the Minneapolis campus, across the Mississippi River from the hospital. The visit could last up to 120 days. Yunk and Nevaeh will stay home. He works for DirectTV and the paycheck is precious.  

“He listens to me,” Jen said of Yunk. “He’s there when I have to cry. He goes to work and supports us that way.”

Jen’s daughter first started pointing to the backs of her legs and saying they hurt in December 2012. Blood work taken at a routine appointment led to the family being told to pack a bag and report to the hospital ASAP.

“It was hard,” Jen said. “I cried all the time. I quit my job.”

Jen had to quit work again last month, having returned to group home work last September when Elizabeth’s leukemia was in remission. Monthly spinal taps revealed the return of the leukemia.

“We know what to expect,” Jen said.

One unexpected turn: Her friend stationed in the Army in South Korea, Amanda Leslie, set up a site to help raise money to support the family’s upcoming extended stay in Minneapolis. So far, it’s raised $1,000 out of a goal of $3,000.

“She told me about it, and I said, ‘Go ahead,’” Jen said.

Jen also provides family and friends with updates on Elizabeth on a CaringBridge site.

To help out

People interested in helping Elizabeth and the Luitens can donate at