Stories of Hope
Article date: May 1, 2001
We can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves or we can do something. We're going to make a difference.
“Caroline’s Miracle” is the story of a six-year-old North Carolina girl and her triumph over a second fight against cancer. It is also the story of her family’s struggles and hopes, her doctor’s research and care that saved her life, and the lifelines provided by the American Cancer Society.
Diagnosed with leukemia at age 2, Caroline had chemotherapy, and seemed to be doing well. Life began to return to normal for Caroline, her parents, Bill and Penny, and four sisters. Two years later, the cancer was back. This time, there was a new complication. Children who relapse while taking cancer drugs cannot be cured with additional drugs. Caroline's best hope became a transplant. Not many parents are faced with a such a difficult decision, one that could impact their child’s survival: Should their child have a bone marrow transplant or cord blood cell transplant?
The family ultimately found their way to Dr. Joanne Kurtzburg, director of Duke University’s Cord Blood Transplant Unit and lab. Dr. Kurtzburg is a pioneer in cord blood transplant, a remarkable technique for obtaining cells capable of replenishing bone marrow. She began working with cord blood, which is saved from a new-born baby’s umbilical cord, in the 1980s.
“The American Cancer Society gave me my first grant,” says Dr. Kurtzburg. She later received a junior faculty award, which enabled her to spend more time in the lab before she went on to a full-time clinical schedule. “Without that grant, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, she says.”
In September 1998, Caroline had her cord blood transplant. While she was recovering in the hospital at Duke, her parents heard about the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, a community-based activity that raises money and increases awareness of cancer and cancer survivorship. The whole family took part in the 1999 Matthews/Mint Hill Relay For Life event. In honor of his daughter, Bill Strother ran for 24 hours. Caroline, wearing a mask to protect her still vulnerable immune system, led the survivor’s lap. Dr. Kurtzburg was there too, happy to see Caroline doing so well.
Bill explains his decision to run for 24 hours this way: “Caroline has lost her hair three times, had multiple chemotherapy treatments, countless injections, hundreds of blood tests, numerous bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps, and nausea. She spent 180 days in hospitals, missed birthday parties, and also missed kindergarten. “Caroline has gone through more pain in four years than most people will go through in a lifetime,” he says.
The American Cancer Society’s role in his daughter’s story was another motivating factor in his decision to become involved in his local Relay For Life. “The whole story came to life,” says Bill. “The American Cancer Society funded the research that Dr. Kurtzburg did as a research fellow at Duke during the 1980’s. In 1993, the first cord blood transplant at Duke was done. Five years later, Caroline was the recipient of this new medical technology. She’s alive today because of the cord blood transplant, because of Dr. Kurtzburg, and because of the American Cancer Society.”
The Strother family continues to be part of Relay For Life. “We just feel like as a family we have to be involved,” says Penny. “We can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves or we can do something. We’re going to make a difference.”
Today, Caroline is healthy and feels fine. She’s off all of her medications, and enjoys going to school and doing gymnastics.