Born Without Immune System But With Hope

Pioneering doctor saves children born without an immune system.


July 15, 2008 — -- One-year-old Jayla Turner got many of her first glimpses of the world by looking curiously through glass and protective netting while her mother, Zelene Turner, looked back at her, often on edge.

In her hospital bed, playing with stuffed animals, Jayla is completely oblivious to the fact that even a common cold could kill her. Her mother is not so lucky.

"I'm like hyper paranoid," Turner said. "Don't touch the baby until you wash your hands. Don't touch."

Little Jayla was born without a thymus gland, meaning her body never developed an immune system — a condition known as DiGeorge Syndrome.

Zelene described her baby's fits of infection that terrified her, saying, "She started having seizures. Then started being really scary looking. She was kind of red. When I read about DiGeorge, I'm thinking death. My baby's going to die."

Generally, children born without the thymus, which develops white blood cells to help fight infections, rarely live past their second birthdays.

But that was before Dr. Louise Markert took up the battle against DiGeorge Syndrome and started to give sufferers and their families hope.

Now she may be the only woman in the world that could save Jayla.

"When I first meet a baby, there's nothing better than holding that baby in your arms," said Markert, a pediatric immunologist. "Looking in that baby's eyes, you just fall in love with that baby."

As Zelene saw, Markert's care for her baby was no different.

"I like the fact that she touched my baby," Zelene said. "She played with her. She held her. That made me feel warm, that she cared."

Such passion and connection with her patients led Markert to pioneer an operation known as thymus transfer, which involves implanting a healthy thymus into the body of a DiGeorge patient, that could give children a second chance to build an immune system.

Of the more than 50 operations Markert has performed so far, 75 percent have been successful.

Such figures gave the Turners hope as they took extreme measures to sterilize their home and keep Jayla as safe as possible while they waited months for an available thymus.

"[Dr. Markert] said make sure you wash your hands," Zelene explained. "Make sure she's not around other people. You know, we have a routine. Whenever we come from outside from anywhere, we automatically strip, take a bath and put on new clothes."

After living such a tedious life for months, the Turners got the call they'd been waiting for. A thymus was available.

The tiny gland, usually situated near the heart, is routinely removed and thrown away during heart surgery on infants, long after it has done its part for the child's immune system.

For Jayla, the thymus was cut into pieces and implanted into her thighs, where it had a chance of producing the immune-boosting T cells. But the results were not returned for months. In the meantime, Zelene experienced a range of emotions, often all at once.

"I'm hopeful. I'm nervous. I'm worried," she said. "It would be a big relief for the family because everyone is just on pins and needles."

When the biopsy came back Zelene was able to breathe a big sigh of relief. The operation was successful. As the tears streamed down her face and she held little Jayla in her arms, the only thing seriously infectious in the room was joy.

If you would like to donate money to help Jayla, you may donate to the organization that raised money for her first surgery by clicking here.

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