Princeton Times


February 1, 2013

Kenzie's Valentine: Mom asks for Princeton's help to send little girl love

PRINCETON — McKenzie Gibson will celebrate her fourth Valentine’s Day in a hospital fighting for her life, but her family is on a mission to make sure she sees how much she’s loved.

Many of McKenzie’s friends will be collecting dozens of paper valentine cards in hand-decorated bags at preschool, day care or church events. But, Jessica Gibson is asking the Mercer County community to make sure McKenzie gets 1,000 Valentines to ease the pain of chemotherapy and surgery she needs to beat the anemia that leaves her weak without regular blood transfusions and intense medical therapy.

“The other day, it dawned on me that she’d going to be in the hospital for Valentine’s Day, and won’t really get to experience the holiday,” Jessica said. “She’s really at the age where she could have a lot of fun with it ... I see things on Facebook all the time where people ask for a certain number of ‘likes’ to help them get a puppy or a piece of jewelry, so I thought maybe we could do something like that to bring joy to my baby girl.”


One of Mercer County’s miracle babies, McKenzie is enduring a round of chemotherapy at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center so that she’ll be ready for a bone marrow and stem cell transplant from her baby sister, Carlee.  

At 5 months old, McKenzie was diagnosed with  diamond blackfan anemia, a rare genetic blood disorder that keeps her bone marrow from producing the red blood cells she needs to sustain healthy tissues and organs and to truly thrive.

Most people who face diamond blackfan anemia — like McKenzie’s dad, Andrew — treat the condition to some extent with steroids, but the drugs never worked for McKenzie, forcing the little girl to undergo blood and blood-product transfusions every three to six weeks of her young life.

When McKenzie was 2, Jessica and Andrew learned they were expecting another baby. That reality was exciting and terrifying, all at the same time. They knew stem cell and bone marrow transplants between siblings were possible, but they also understood the risks.

There was a 1-in-4 chance that McKenzie and Carlee would be a bone marrow match, but there was also a 50-50 chance Carlee would carry the DBA gene, just like McKenzie.

So, they waited, and hoped, and prayed — a lot.

They also took steps to store the stem cells in Carlee’s umbilical cord blood, just in case she turned out to be a healthy match, or in case she needed the cells later herself.

And, by the time Carlee was 6 months old, the Gibsons knew she did not have DBA and was a genetic match for her sister’s bone marrow tissue.

They began preparing their girls for the reality of their conditions.

For Carlee, the donation will be very simple: She’ll be anaesthetized, and bone marrow will be aspirated from her hip area to be inserted into McKenzie.

For McKenzie, the chemotherapy is just the start. Once it’s complete and has killed all of McKenzie’s anemic bone marrow and immune system, the 4-year-old angel will undergo surgery to insert Carlee’s harvested bone marrow and stem cells into her system. She is expected to spend four to six weeks as an inpatient at the hospital and at least six to nine months at the Ronald McDonald House, where she can make daily or weekly trips to the hospital for further tests and transfusions.


The Gibsons’ road to this point has been rough.

McKenzie was due for a bone marrow transfusion last spring, but the iron build-up that plagues many people with diamond blackfan anemia had already started working on McKenzie’s liver, delaying the procedure.

“The iron in her liver wasn’t coming out as quickly as the doctors wanted it to, so we changed her treatment a little, using a different kind of medicine,” Jessica Gibson explained via a phone call from the Ronald McDonald House near Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Wednesday. “Finally, we got the iron down in early October. We got the scans back that said we were ready to do the transplant.”

Just last week, Jessica, Andrew, McKenzie and Carlee made the emotional journey from Princeton to Cincinnati and a future full of healthy days for the whole family.

Wednesday was just McKenzie’s third day of chemotherapy. So far, the treatment known for its debilitating side effects has left McKenzie a little tired but otherwise unaffected. She hasn’t faced the nausea often associated with the therapy, and although the Gibsons know it won’t last, they’re thankful the little beauty’s dark hair hasn’t fallen out yet.

“Right now, it’s just kind of surreal,” Jessica said. “We’ve been working on this for so long that we aren’t sure it’s real.”

McKenzie is undergoing inpatient treatment at the CCHMC, while the rest of her immediate family makes a temporary home at the Ronald McDonald House next door.

“We’re far from home and staying in the Ronald McDonald House, but at the same time, they have gone to great strides to try to make us feel as much at home as possible. The hospital has been absolutely wonderful,”  Jessica said.

Though each family member has faced his or her own trials along the path to healing, Jessica said she is more thankful than she can say for the extended family support and the love of the community the Gibsons can feel all the way in Cincinnati.

“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety, dealing with the unknown. We’ll never stop worrying, but we’re holding up for the most part,” she said. “And, we have the most amazing support system. From our family to our friends, everybody has been so wonderful.”

That strong support network is one reason Jessica is convinced McKenzie can really tally 1,000 or more Valentines in a little less than two weeks.

Because she doesn’t want to overwhelm the CCHMC mail system, Jessica asks that anyone who wishes to send McKenzie a card do so at her parents’ address. To help, send Valentines to: Valentines for McKenzie, 246 Pilot Street, Princeton, WV 24740.

— Contact Tammie Toler at

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