On the Pulse

“Nothing Short of a Miracle”: Specialized Care Team at Seattle Children’s Eradicates Seeley’s High-Risk Leukemia

7.2.2024 | Ashley Speller

A little girl running through a bamboo forest

When soon-to-be parents Shawn and Hayley learned they were expecting, they were overjoyed about the journey ahead.

“We were really excited,” Shawn said.

Their daughter, Seeley, was born on the scenic Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi in September of 2021. Despite a healthy birth and successful transition home, Shawn and Hayley recognized something was wrong after about two weeks.  

“She had fever and started to throw up,” Shawn explained. “We took Seeley to our local emergency room, and I asked them to do a blood test for my peace of mind.”

What happened next would change the family’s life forever.

“Seeley’s white blood cell count came back extremely high, so they took another test,” said Hayley. “Shortly after that, we saw the team literally start running on the other side of the glass doors to our room.”

Seeley was flown to the larger island of Oʻahu via medevac, where doctors diagnosed her with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“It’s not something you can imagine hearing,” recalled Shawn. “Our 2-week-old baby getting a diagnosis like that. It was a physical shock.”

AML is the most common type of cancer in children. Doctors do not know what causes the changes in cells that lead to AML. There is no known way to prevent it, and in most children, leukemia is aggressive and gets worse quickly without treatment.

Seeley’s white blood cell count climbed to dangerous levels, and oncologists in Oʻahu urged Hayley and Shawn to consider chemotherapy treatment immediately, despite Seeley’s very young age and small size. 

An adult hand holds the hand of a tiny infant who is sleeping

“They said she would die by the end of the week if we didn’t do it, so we made the hard decision to risk her life in order to save it,” said Hayley.  

Seeley started chemotherapy, but her condition became even more complicated when genetic testing revealed her leukemia was especially aggressive and high-risk. Chemotherapy alone would not cure her, she needed a bone marrow transplant (BMT) to completely eradicate the cancer-causing cells.

A BMT involves treating a patient with high doses of chemotherapy (and sometimes radiation) to eradicate as many cancer cells as possible. This intense treatment also destroys the patient’s own immune cells. Then, the patient is infused with healthy donor stem cells to create a new immune system that can identify and destroy any remaining cancer cells. 

Because she was so young and her disease was high-risk, Seeley’s oncologist in Oʻahu recommended her family transfer to a hospital that could provide the highly specialized care needed for her transplant.

“When I asked the oncologist where he would go if it was his child, he said he would be on the first flight to Seattle Children’s,” said Hayley.

A mother holds her infant daughter while sitting next to her husband and a make doctor in a hospital room

Seattle Children’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Program providers treat more babies, children, teens and young adults with leukemia than any other hospital in the northwest United States. The team, which specializes in molecular testing to pinpoint the unique aspects of each child’s cancer to identify the best possible treatment, worked collaboratively to develop a personalized treatment plan that would give Seeley the best chance for a cure.

“We knew we had to get her to transplant quickly, but also needed think out of the box on how to transplant Seeley and what we should do to keep her leukemia away,” explained Todd Cooper, DO, section head of Oncology and director of Seattle Children’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Program.

Seeley’s parents and sister were only partial or half matches, but Seattle Children’s High-Risk Leukemia Team, which is well known for leaving no stone unturned in helping patients survive and thrive, looked for another way.

“What sets our program in Seattle apart from everywhere in the country is our wraparound, personalized, and very multidisciplinary approach to care,” said Dr. Cooper “We collaborate with one another on every patient, from expert physicians to pathology and research.”

Dr. Cooper and his Cancer and Blood Disorders Center colleagues, including Monica Thakar, MD, the inpatient medical director of Seattle Children’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program, evaluated Seeley’s treatment options.

“We looked in the national marrow donor program (NMDP) registry but couldn’t find a well-matched donor for Seeley’s BMT,” explained Dr. Thakar. “Groups under-represented in the registry and patients with multi-ethnic backgrounds, like Seeley, can be harder to match, which leads to disparities in the identification of unrelated donors through the NMDP.”

Thankfully, Dr. Thakar is leading a clinical trial at 14 hospitals in the United States that enabled Hayley to become Seeley’s donor, despite being a half-match.

“Our trial is studying the use of natural killer (NK) cells from the donor to recognize leukemia cells and attack them to prevent recurrence,” added Dr. Thakar. “NK cell immunotherapy has a strong track record in treating AML in a safe and novel way.”

An infant is held up next to a hand-drawn Happy Transplant Day Seeley sign in her hospital room

After multiple rounds of chemotherapy during her first few months of life and the successful bone marrow transplant facilitated alongside the Fred Hutch Cancer Center, Seeley was declared cancer-free in May 2022, only eight months after arriving at Seattle Children’s.

“The people who take care of kids with cancer at Seattle Children’s are just so incredibly special and have dedicated their entire lives to taking care of these children,” said Dr. Cooper.

Today, Seeley is back home in Hawaiʻi and is active and full of joy. Her parents call her their little miracle.

“Seeley has a bright future ahead,” added Dr. Thakar. “I expect she's going to continue growing through childhood and into adulthood.”  

“It was nothing short of a miracle that we discovered her cancer and started treatment, a cancer that had almost no symptoms, and undetected, would have taken her life before she was even a month old,” shared Hayley.

A father, mother and their two daughters hold up a teal sign with white letters that says. "Thank you!"

Seeley’s family is forever grateful to everyone who helped save their daughter’s life.

“Looking at Seeley, one word that comes to mind is strength,” said Hayley. “No matter what was thrown at her, she was there with a smile on her face. It gave me hope and strength. Our confidence in Seattle Children’s team superseded our expectations and I think it was the best place we could have been for cancer care.”

Learn more about Seattle Children’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Program.