A lifetime later, a bone marrow donor and recipient return to Fred Hutch

25 years ago, Jennifer Monteleone donated her marrow to her 6-year-old brother, Michael
Michael Monteleone (left), and his sister and marrow donor, Jennifer Monteleone, visit with Michael's transplant physician, Dr. David Maloney.
Michael Monteleone (left), and his sister and marrow donor, Jennifer Monteleone, visit with clinical researcher and transplant physician Dr. David Maloney in his Fred Hutch office, where they learned about some of the latest advances in transplant biology. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Some siblings bribe, cajole or blackmail each other to convince their brother or sister to do their load of the household chores. But growing up, Jennifer Monteleone always had the ultimate trump card when it came to her brother: She saved his life.

When Jennifer was only a year old and Michael was 6, her bone marrow was used in a transplant to eradicate his leukemia. Twenty-five years later, the siblings recently visited Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, accompanied by their mother, Julie Monteleone, younger sister Nicole, and Michael’s wife, also named Jennifer.

 Michael was only 2 when he was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer in which the bone marrow overproduces lymphocytes. He was treated initially with chemotherapy in his home state of Arizona, but in 1990, when he was 6, the cancer returned.  His family asked about the possibility of a bone marrow transplant.

“The Arizona doctors offered no alternative treatment options and actually advised against the transplant,” Michael said. Michael’s parents wouldn’t take no for an answer. Julie called transplant programs across the country to see how she could help her son. This led her to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the home of bone marrow transplantation. 

‘We came to the best place’

“The doctor in Arizona told us not to come, that we were wasting our time. So we left. We knew we had to leave the state anyway (for a transplant), so we came to the best place,” she said.

Michael doesn’t remember much of his treatment experience, but the memories he has are happy ones.

“All I really remember is riding the tricycle around the hospital room and having Ninja Turtles hanging from the ceiling, or the time a chef brought me shrimp scampi,” he said.

Michael says his parents’ positive attitude was the reason he was never very stressed during treatment. Julie credits the support system of families with children who were being treated at the same time as Michael for her ability to stay positive.

“Other families were going through the same thing. We just thought, ‘We have to leave it outside, we have to be positive,’” Julie said.

The siblings proved the doctors in Arizona wrong. Michael, now a 31-year-old insurance agent, and Jennifer, a 26-year-old fourth grade teacher, grew up together and remain close. Both still live in Arizona. 

Julie Monteleone
"It's been 25 years; now we'll celebrate," said Michael Monteleone's mother, Julie Monteleone, during her visit to the Fred Hutch campus earlier this month. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Michael is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his transplant in two parts.  First, he went on vacation to Jamaica. Then he took a road trip up the West Coast with his family and chose to end the trip at Fred Hutch, where the rest of his life began.

“When do you celebrate?” Julie asked, reflecting on Michael’s experience. “A year? Five years? You can’t really because you’re never 100 percent sure. But it’s been 25 years, now we’ll celebrate.”

During the Monteleones’ tour of the Fred Hutch campus earlier this month, they heard about the advancements in cancer research. They met with Dr. David Maloney, a clinical researcher who specializes in transplantation, and discussed how cancer treatments have changed since Michael’s illness.

He explained that today, a child would be treated similarly to the way Michael was, but back in the early ‘90s, it was rare to transplant someone older than 40 because the treatments were so taxing. Today, Maloney has successfully treated people up to age 80 because only one-tenth of the amount of chemotherapy that Michael received is needed. The process of extracting bone marrow also has changed. At the time of Michael’s transplant, marrow was removed from the hip bones. Now circulating adult stem cells can be used, and the process for donating is similar to donating blood.

“When you’re 6 you don’t really get it,” Michael said, reflecting on his time at Fred Hutch.  “It’s really interesting to see not only what they’re doing now but what I actually went through. The science is incredible.”

Megan Herndon is a writing intern on the Fred Hutch news team. She is a rising senior at the University of Washington where she is majoring in journalism, minoring in French, and pursuing a Certificate of Sales. Reach her at mherndon@fredhutch.org.

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