VILVOORDE – 9 year old Nico Verdoodt owes his life to his own umbilical cord. At his birth, his mother decided to freeze blood from his umbilical cord to help other people. Years later, it emerges that her own son suffers from a rare and life-threatening blood disease. After a thorough search the sample was retrieved and the treatment a success.
“In July last year, Nico became ill,” says his mother, Catherine Boeykens from Vilvoorde. “Flu symptoms didn’t raise any alarm bells. As Nico was still feeling lifeless after two weeks, we consulted a doctor. His diagnosis: gastritis or gastroenteritis. A few days later, Nico’s eyes took on a yellow shine. Our GP immediately referred us to A&E.”
Nico was kept in for observation but tests didn’t reveal anything. During the next three months, further tests were carried out, until, at the end of October, the harsh verdict fell: Nico was suffering from the life-threatening blood disease aplastic anaemia. This is a rare type of anaemia where your own stem cells attack bone marrow. This hit the entire family hard.
Treatment of aplastic anaemia depends on the severity of the disease. In Nico Verdoodt’s case, a bone marrow transplant was chosen. Stem cells can come from the bone marrow of a healthy donor, or from Nico himself, as healthy stem cells can be selected from his own bone marrow. A third option is the treatment of stem cells from the blood from the umbilical cord, a preferred option with children.
“At his birth in Bonheiden, doctors had asked me if I wanted to donate the blood from the umbilical cord for research,” said Nico’s mother. “I remember telling my husband that I hoped we would never need it ourselves. Thank goodness we decided to donate.”
Doctors went on a search for the blood and retrieved it from the umbilical cord blood bank at the university hospital Gasthuisberg in Leuven. The blood, which naturally also contained Nico’s stem cells, had been stored at -196 degrees Celsius and had to be injected within five minutes of defrosting.
After the transplant which took place on 3 November last year the boy had to stay in a quarantine room for twenty five days. “Since then, all has been well,” says his mother. “Although the treatment was successful and new blood cells are being produced, we remain cautious. Whether donor cells are used or blood from the umbilical cord: a transplant remains a risky treatment.”
The organisation of the household has changed radically over the last few months. “All of Nico’s food must be bacteria free. This means only fresh food, no tap water, regular mouth rinsing and many other things. As soon as we get home, we take our shoes off and wash our hands,” says Boeykens.
“We cancelled our skiing holiday. Nico would have had to stay in a hotel and we have to avoid crowded areas. We are also keeping away from family parties for now, though Nico is allowed to go for a bike ride or a walk every now and again.
He has also started to play table tennis again and thanks to Bednet, a webcam and a scanner, he attends his school lessons at home. One hour per day, he receives extra tuition from his teacher Julie.
“Given the rarity of the disease, treatment doesn’t come cheap. We are therefore extremely pleased with the initiative that his school Klim-Op has taken to organise a sponsored run next week,” says his mother. “We will be living in fear for a while but when we see how well Nico is coping, it brings hope that everything will be fine.”