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Schneider unites 3-year-old, man who saved his life

But because of a bone marrow transplant, the bright-eyed boy with curly...

By Jennifer C. Smith

Mud pies are the staple of nearly every toddler’s diet, but two years ago a mouthful of earth would have been fatal for 3-year-old Colin O’Connell, who was weakened by leukemia.

But because of a bone marrow transplant, the bright-eyed boy with curly brown hair and red cheeks now is free from the disease.

“He can play in dirt,” said Jeffrey Lipton, director of the Division for Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park. “I think that is successful enough.”

To show appreciation to the bone marrow donor, Chris Simmons, 39, from North Carolina and to the doctors involved in Colin’s progress, Lipton and Adriana Vlachos, Colin’s parents gathered at Schneider Friday. Simmons’ wife, Angie, and two children, Pete, who is only two months older than Colin, and Anna, also were present.

“The point of coming here was to thank the doctors,” said Bill O’Connell, 39, the toddler’s father. “They worked around the clock and they’re our family.”

The child’s mother, Christine O’Connell, 37, said, “Without our hero and the knowledge and skill of the doctors, Colin wouldn’t be alive. We felt God was watching all of us.”

Simmons said he first decided to donate bone marrow 10 years ago, when a supervisor’s niece needed a bone marrow transplant. “I felt lucky to be a match and that we were going to go through this,” he said.

The families only met last week for the first time. Federal law requires that donor and recipient personal information is not to be exchanged during the time of the transplant and prohibits a meeting between the parties for at least one year following the procedure.

The toddler’s medical odyssey began when he was just 7 months old. Colin’s father said he thought something was wrong when he was feeding him one day and noticed his face was paralyzed. The diagnosis of a rare type of leukemia in April 1999 stunned the parents.

“I was devastated, shocked, numb,” Christine O’Connell said. “I couldn’t believe this perfect baby had leukemia.”

The infant was immediately placed on chemotherapy, which cures about 50 percent of patients. His cancer went into remission a month later. He continued treatment until September, when he relapsed in February 2000.

“We decided we were fighting with him and not going on without our son,” Christine O’Connell said. At that point the search began for a bone marrow donor.

Usually a sibling is a good match for an afflicted individual, but Colin was an only child. His parents held a bone marrow drive in March, sponsored by the American Red Cross, the Long Island Blood Bank and the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry. Some 5,000 individuals came to donate bone marrow, while 1,900 people were tested for HLA typing, which tests tissue antigens, or substances in the body that stimulate the immune response.

Vlachos, associate head of Stem Cell Transplantation, said Hispanic donors were targeted because Colin’s father is partly Hispanic and there is a specific antigen needed to make the transplant more successful.

The best match, however, was from Simmons, who at the time was simply identified as a male donor, 35 years of age. The standard antigen count is six and Simmons’ count was five out of six.

Vlachos said the missing antigen still meant a potential hazard for the patient, even if it was the closest match. She said there was a 30 percent chance of survival with such a match. Yet, Vlachos said, Colin had no other choice. “Within one year, he would have died without a transplant,” she said.

The next month Colin had the procedure, which involved an intensive round of chemotherapy that destroyed all the bone marrow in his body before Simmons’ marrow could be transplanted. Simmons had the surgery performed in North Carolina, so that the marrow was brought to New York that same day by courier.

The transplant went smoothly, but Colin still was not out of danger.

Lipton said “after transfusion there are many ways for the body to fail: The boy’s immune system could break down or the bone marrow could be destroyed completely. Organ failure could also occur.” The period of recuperation is usually one year.

Both families wrote to another anonymously for a year, submitting letters through the discretion of the American Red Cross. After the mandated year had passed, both parties expressed interest in waiving confidentiality and Simmons called the O’Connells.

Mary O’Connell said they intended to meet earlier this year, but Colin did not have clearance to be with other children at that point.

The Simmons stayed at the O’Connells’ house in Islip, L.I. and returned to North Carolina Sunday.

Vlachos said “Chris Simmons saved this child’s life. It’s similar [to] a fireman running into a burning building and saving someone. While he didn’t risk his life, he gave a piece of himself.”

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