We recently featured the story of Tina Ceroni, a Burlington Ontario athlete whose life was sidelined by a rare, insidious disorder called Stiff Person Syndrome. Thanks to a stem cell transplant, Tina’s fitness career — and her life — is back on track. To show her gratitude, Tina raised almost $37,000 for the Ottawa Hospital’s Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Transplant Program. When she was presented the cheque to Dr. Harry Atkins on Dec. 4th, Tina met with two other young women whose lives have been rescued by stem cell treatments: Jelissa Morgan and Jennifer Molson. Today we share Jelissa’s story.
From nurse to patient and (soon) back again
When Jelissa Morgan’s neuromyelitis optica flared up again in early 2012, she was devastated.
The rare immunological disorder, similar to Multiple Sclerosis, inflames the optic nerve and the spinal cord. Jelissa was losing her vision — she couldn’t read or watch movies and had trouble identifying who was talking to her. Walking was difficult. She had serious bladder and bowel problems and her skin itched. ‘My body was in pain,” she says, “but didn’t know how to express it.”
That flare-up, the worst of a series the young woman had experienced since finishing high school, transformed Jelissa from hospital nurse to hospital patient.
Until then, her doctors had kept the condition under control with Prednisone, a synthetic corticosteroid that comes with a slew of potential side-effects such as weight gain, sleep difficulties and mood swings. Some patients develop a humped back and a moon face. Jelissa had all of those symptoms and more.
A switch to a different drug, called Imuran, proved futile: she was on it when the worst flare-up struck.
“They were running out of medication options. My neurologist said, ‘What do you think about a stem cell bone marrow transplant?’ She knew about Dr. Harry Atkins and the work he was doing with MS patients.”
For the past several years, the Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Atkins, working with neurologist Dr. Mark Freedman, has been treating MS patients with stem cell bone marrow transplants. In essence, he takes stem cells from patients with the most severe cases of the immunological disease and purifies and fortifies them. The patient then undergoes an extreme course of chemotherapy treatments that virtually annihilates their diseased immune system. The robust stem cells are then returned to them to rebuild a new — hopefully disease-free — immune system.
The process has worked well with about 30 MS patients whose disease progression has been stopped. In some cases, symptoms of the disease have diminished significantly and — in at least one case — disappeared entirely.
Dr. Atkins is also using the procedure for people who have other autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease, Stiff Person Syndrome — and neuromyelitis optica.
Jelissa decided to have the experimental stem cell treatment.
“It’s kind of one of those decisions where you don’t want to wait,” she say. “You don’t know when the next flare-up will be. That last flare-up was so bad. Luckily, I was able to regain a lot of the functions I’d lost. But it’s like rolling the dice. You don’t know what could happen with the next flare-up.”
Jelissa received her stem cell transplant in the fall of 2012. She has been free of neuromyelitis optica symptoms ever since.
“I feel better than I did even before the disease began. I have much more energy. I’m off all my pills for the immune disorder and the transplant meds. I’m looking forward to getting my life back on track. That includes buying a car, moving out of my parent’s house and traveling.”
She is excited about returning to nursing in the next few months, after receiving a series of vaccinations to replace the ones lost during the chemotherapy treatment.
“From a patient perspective, a transplant is a hard thing to go through. But I survived. I feel like it’s given me a second chance at life. ”
She strongly supports stem cell research to help more people with diseases like hers.
“Stem cell research opens up so many possibilities. It’s like opening a door and entering a room and you don’t even know what’s in the room yet. It could mean treatments for so many things. There is so much hope there.”