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Blood donation: ‘It’s life’ — Parents of N.L. toddler with leukemia thank blood donors

Amelia Saunders, 3, was diagnosed with leukemia in July and received 11 blood transfusions that month. Her parents said she’ll likely need more blood again in November with the next round of chemotherapy.
Amelia Saunders, 3, was diagnosed with leukemia in July and received 11 blood transfusions that month. Her parents said she’ll likely need more blood again in November with the next round of chemotherapy. - Juanita Mercer

Three-year-old Amelia Saunders loves to play with toy cars.

She laughs as she pushes them along the floor in the living room, with her parents Doug Saunders and Veronica Vardy looking on.

Without Canadian Blood Services and blood donors, she probably wouldn’t be here today.

Amelia has leukemia.

Since her diagnosis in July, she’s had 11 blood transfusions.

“It’s not just chemo that is going to cure my kid — people that gave blood are a part of the reason that she’s still here with me today,” says Vardy, her voice quavering.

“Getting those blood products — it’s so much more than just blood. I always tended to think of it before as ‘just blood’, but now … it’s life.”

Vardy recalls the Canada Day long weekend when she first noticed there was something wrong with Amelia, who is described as a carefree, happy child and “a joy to everyone”.

The whole family was camping at Terra Nova Park when Amelia started walking with limp and became cranky.

Vardy knew something was amiss.

On Monday evening, Amelia developed a rash on her legs — something the family later learned was petechiae — pinprick bleeds near the skin sometimes caused by a lack of blood platelets.

When the family doctor’s office opened Tuesday morning, Vardy booked the next available appointment on Wednesday.

In the waiting room, Amelia’s gums spontaneously started to bleed.

Her family doctor sent her to the Janeway emergency right away.

By Friday, doctors diagnosed the then 2 1/2-year-old with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“I felt like my insides were sucked out of me — I felt like part of me fell to the floor,” recalls Vardy of hearing the diagnosis.

“I remember having to keep talking to the doctor to try to make sense of it.”

A blood test showed Amelia’s platelets reading a level of one, when they should be a minimum of 150 — that’s why Amelia’s gums started bleeding out of nowhere — with platelet levels so low, there was no clotting.

On Amelia’s first day in emergency at the Janeway, she received two blood transfusions.

By the time she was released from hospital two weeks later, the toddler had 11 transfusions.

“She got through those two weeks because people donate blood.”

Intense chemotherapy treatments continued throughout the summer, and it wasn’t until the end of summer that Amelia started to return to her smiling, happy self.

She had to learn how to walk again and is still in physiotherapy to narrow her gait — a part of the aftermath of inflammation that came with leukemia in the bone marrow of her legs.

Amelia will continue to receive chemotherapy for the next 2 1/2 years — she’ll be finished kindergarten before she finishes chemotherapy.

St. John’s residents Doug Saunders and Veronica Vardy say blood donors helped to save their daughter Amelia’s life. — Juanita Mercer photo
St. John’s residents Doug Saunders and Veronica Vardy say blood donors helped to save their daughter Amelia’s life. — Juanita Mercer photo

From there, she’ll be monitored by Janeway oncologists periodically until she’s about 18.

“I hadn’t been a regular donor of blood in the past,” says her father.

Seeing how much blood his daughter needed — and will likely need again as her treatments continue — has convinced Saunders to become a regular donor.

“It’s made me realize that there’s a greater need for it than what I had originally thought.”

At one point while Amelia was at the Janeway, there was a shortage of blood.

Doctors knew she’d need platelets within the next 24 hours and were luckily able to reserve some.

“Every time she had one of those bags of blood on her IV pole, I would think about how people go and give blood products — having no idea where it goes or how it’s going to be used,” says Vardy.

“I was so grateful, and so happy and relieved — thankful in a way I can’t even describe — that people give blood. Eleven times in a two-week period in July, when I had no idea what was going on —when we had only just learned that our baby had cancer — it was so scary, and if I had had to wait for blood …” Vardy’s voice quivers.

“The blood — people may never know where it goes, but it really is the gift of life, and the families and the patients who receive it are overwhelmingly thankful.”

juanita.mercer@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @juanitamercer_

You can donate blood in St. John’s at Canadian Blood Services, located at 7 Wicklow St. For more information, visit www.blood.ca.

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