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Saving lives



Published: Fri, November 23, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



A bone-marrowtransplant will give Thomas Sankey an80 percent chance ofliving a longer life.

By IAN HILL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

AUSTINTOWN -- A Cincinnati doctor will head to South Korea next month as part of an effort to save an Austintown teen's life.

Dr. Richard Harris, medical director of the stem cell transplant program at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, is set to fly to Seoul on Dec. 1 and retrieve bone marrow for Thomas Sankey. Thomas, 14, has Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disease that interferes with the body's ability to produce blood cells in bone marrow.

The average life expectancy for a person with this condition is 18 to 20 years, Dr. Harris said. He is one of two doctors in the United States who is an expert in treating Fanconi anemia with a bone-marrow transplant.

Transplant: A bone-marrow transplant will give Thomas an 80 percent chance of surviving longer than he would without the procedure. He is set to undergo the transplant in mid-December.

Thomas said he was anxious, but not scared, to go through the procedure.

The marrow will come from Thomas' 6-year-old biological brother, who lives near Seoul. Thomas, an eighth-grader at Austintown Middle School, was adopted by Martin and Linda Sankey of Woodledge Drive when he was 4 months old.

sHe has never met his biological family.

Dr. Harris contacted the Sankey family Monday night and said that he will make the trip to South Korea to collect the bone marrow. While he is in Seoul, he plans to speak to Thomas' biological family and may try to organize a reunion.

Adoption: Linda and Martin decided to adopt Thomas in 1987, after they were told they could not have children for medical reasons. Martin said Thomas was born to unmarried parents in South Korea, and as a result, would have been ostracized if he had grown up in that country.

The Sankeys picked up Thomas at the airport in Chicago on March 24, 1988, and from then on the family has celebrated March 24 as "Gotcha Day."

"We were an instant family," Linda said. "It was just natural."

Martin and Linda learned Thomas had Fanconi anemia two years later when they took him to Akron for surgery to correct deformities on his hands. Blood tests showed he had the disease.

"I was devastated," Linda said.

About 1,000 people around the world have been diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, which is found in children whose parents each carry a recessive gene. Symptoms include birth defects and a weak immune ystem. Fanconi anemia also causes leukemia and other cancers of the blood.

Problem: Martin said that over the years, Thomas' bone marrow stopped producing platelets, which prevent bruises and infections and help the blood clot.

The average person has between 150,000 and 200,000 platelets. Thomas currently has 20,000 platelets, Martin said.

"We're racing against the clock," he said.

Dr. Harris said that a transplant will eliminate Thomas' risk of developing leukemia. In the future, however, he may develop tumors in other organs that were weakened by the condition.

Donor: The Sankeys said they began looking for a bone-marrow donor soon after learning of the boy's illness. No potential donors found had bone marrow that perfectly matched Thomas' marrow. In addition, the Sankeys couldn't persuade Thomas' biological parents in South Korea to cooperate with the search for a donor.

The biological parents married and had their own children after Thomas was adopted. One of those children also has Fanconi anemia. "They didn't want to be bothered" with Thomas, Martin said.

Martin said that because of the language barrier, he and his wife were having difficulty convincing Thomas' biological parents that their help was needed. Eventually a doctor who spoke Korean was able to describe Thomas' disease and tell the biological parents that their children would not be harmed by the bone marrow tests.

The biological parents soon agreed to have their own children tested, and it was discovered that their 6-year-old son was a perfect match for Thomas.

Thomas' transplant is set for mid-December in Cincinnati. Linda and Martin said they are confident that the procedure will be a success. "We're walking in together; we're walking out together," Linda said.

Thomas, meanwhile, is planning for the future. He said he eventually hopes to work as a herpetologist, a scientist who studies reptiles and amphibians.

hill@vindy.com




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