A Life Saved in Six Minutes: An Update on Zach [VIDEO]

by Nancy Swart
July 5, 2017

Last week, we shared Honored Kid Zach’s amazing story and the news that the three-time cancer fighter was going to get a bone marrow transplant — a procedure that could put the 15-year-old into remission for good. Today, about a week after the transplant, Zach’s mom has an update.

Zach and his family before his BMT

The family gathers before Zach’s bone marrow transplant. From left to right: Nancy, Ben, Tom and Zach, with Gabe on Facetime.

My son, Zach, is fighting cancer for the third time, which means this is the third time going through tests, treatments and all the uncertainties that follow. Zach had three months of intense chemo therapy to try to get him into remission before his bone marrow transplant or BMT. At the end of his treatments, through numerous hospitalizations, we learned that Zach was not in remission.

Our hearts were broken, as we knew that BMT would not be possible unless Zach was in complete remission. Our team at Albany Medical Center suggested CAR T-cell therapy to achieve remission. I started making some phone calls and St. Baldrick’s Scholar Dr. Kevin Curran at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center returned my phone call within the hour.

Zach before his first diagnosis

Zach was just 6 years old when he was diagnosed with childhood cancer for the first time.

We saw Dr. Curran the following week and we were so thankful that Zach met the criteria for the CAR T-cell immunotherapy trial. Dr. Curran informed us that this trial also included five patients from Dana Farber in Boston, but it had officially closed. Dr. Curran wrote a special request to the medical directors at Sloan and Zach was officially the last patient for this study.

CAR T-cell therapy is a relatively new method for treating children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is giving families another option when chemotherapy doesn’t work.

Zach did incredibly well with the CAR T-cell therapy. We were well aware of the potential side effects that could accompany this specific treatment, but Zach did beautifully. He had very minimal side effects which included one day of a low-grade fever. After three weeks, the goal was achieved, Zach was in complete remission.

Then it was onto the next step — BMT. Zach’s oldest brother Ben was a 10 out of 10 match. Zach’s bother Gabriel, 18, was also tested, but Ben was the 10 we were looking for.

To prep his cells for extraction, Ben had to take two shots for five days. He experienced bone pain in his spine and hips, which he said was nothing compared to what Zach was going through. He had to lay still for hours while he received two IVs. The IV in his right arm pulled out blood to be sorted in an apheresis machine. After going through the machine, the IV in his left arm returned the sifted blood into his system — minus the marrow.

Zach receives his BMT

Zach receives his bone marrow transplant.

“The whole process was pretty amazing, because my cells are now going to be Zach’s cells,” Ben told me. “He will develop an almost exact copy of my immune system to help defend him from leukemia cells. We are very lucky to have the ability to go through with this process to make Zach cancer free.”

I was so proud of Ben. I know he or his brother Gabe would do anything in their power to help Zach. Ben went into his meeting with the BMT team at Sloan and did not even bat an eye when they told him that he might feel some bone aches or flu-like symptoms.

Learn about how immunotherapy saved the young life of Honored Kid Phineas >

Last Wednesday was the BMT. The day started off at the hospital with my husband, Tom, Ben and his girlfriend Amber, plus Gabe on Facetime. The team came in and showed us a small syringe of Ben’s cells. The doctor pushed Ben’s cells into Zach’s body in six minutes. We all wished Zach a happy birthday, because this six-minute push is what will save his life.

It’s now been about a week since the BMT. Zach has been very sick with fevers and is receiving morphine for pain caused by mouth sores. His team of doctors have told us this is to be expected, so I try not to worry.

Today, he already seems to be doing better.

As for what’s to come? We are waiting for Ben’s cells to engraft in Zach’s bone marrow and for Zach to start producing brand-new, healthy white blood cells. We were told it typically takes 10 to 14 days.

Once Zach starts creating new cells, his body can heal and the mouth sores will clear. So, he is holding tight and doing the best he can.

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