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5-year-old Olivia’s blood and marrow donation gives her little brother a fighting chance

Eli Vasquez was diagnosed with Hurler syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, when he was just a few months old. Fortunately, his older sister Olivia held the key to saving her little brother’s life.
2-year-old Eli Vasquez (right) and his older sister Olivia (left) are “best friends,” according to their mom, Kelsey. Last year, Eli received a life-saving blood and marrow transplant at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Olivia Vasquez and her little brother Eli are best friends.

The siblings love to swim, play on the slide in their backyard, and watch TV. “They pretty much do everything together,” said their mom, Kelsey.

So when 5-year-old Olivia learned last year that her 2-year-old brother needed a blood and marrow transplant – and that she was a perfect donor match – Olivia didn’t hesitate to help. “When I got that call and told Olivia, her face lit up,” Kelsey said. “She was so happy that she would be able to help her sick little brother.”

Olivia, who was just four years old at the time, explained it this way: “My brother has bad blood, and I have good blood, so I’m going to give him my blood.”

Born in 2018, Eli was diagnosed with Hurler syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects just one in 100,000 children. People with Hurler syndrome are missing an enzyme the body needs in order to digest certain sugars.

“If you do not have this enzyme, your body cannot break down large sugar molecules in the body,” said Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Physician Ashish Gupta, MD, MPH, a member of the world- renowned Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant program at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

“These big molecules start building up in the cells and tissues all over your body, from head to toe,” Gupta said. Eventually, the build-up causes damage to organs throughout the body – from the brain, eyes, and bones to the heart, lungs, liver, and spleen. Left untreated, Hurler syndrome is fatal within the first 10 years of life.

A blood and marrow transplant can stop Hurler syndrome from causing more damage and prolong a child’s life by replacing faulty stem cells in the body that are missing the enzyme with healthy stem cells from another person. Because of a process called “metabolic cross-correction,” the enzymes will pass from blood cells derived from the donor’s healthy stem cells to the recipient’s cells, clearing the buildup.

When Kelsey and her husband Enrique Vasquez learned that Eli would need a blood and marrow transplant early in his life, they got tested to see if anyone was a match. Siblings are often good donor candidates, because they share so much genetic material. But Eli also needed a donor who did not carry the genetic mutation that was responsible for his Hurler syndrome. Olivia had a one-in-eight chance of being a perfect match. Fortunately, the Vasquez family learned she did not carry the same mutation.

Once the Kelsey and Enrique discovered Olivia could be a donor, they needed to find a center capable of performing the transplant.

For more than 50 years, M Health Fairview has been a world leader and pioneer in this area of medicine. In 1968, our experts performed the world’s first successful blood and marrow transplant from a matched, related donor. And in 1983, our hospital team performed the first blood and marrow transplant to treat Hurler syndrome in the United States. All total, we have performed more than 8,000 blood and marrow transplants.

That expertise made a difference for the Vasquez family. They traveled 1,923 miles to Minnesota so that Eli could receive the best-possible care at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

“It’s the number-one center in the country, so the familiarity all of the physicians, nurses, and staff had with Hurler gave us a lot of peace of mind,” Kelsey said. “Knowing that the M Health Fairview team has seen and transplanted these kids more than anyone else made it an easy choice for us.”

“Our expertise in blood and marrow transplants for metabolic disorders is unparalleled,” said Gupta. “Additionally, we also have many other experts – from cardiology to orthopedics – who know how to treat other important issues associated with Hurler syndrome. That means we can provide incredible care, through the transplant process and well beyond.”

In November 2019, Olivia became a blood and marrow donor. Her little brother’s transplant, led by Gupta and a team of specialists, went smoothly for all involved. Throughout the process, Olivia never wavered from her determination to help Eli.

“Olivia is a wonderful, very energetic girl, and she was all-in from day one,” Gupta said.

Recently, the family returned to the hospital for Eli’s one-year check-up. Olivia and Eli are closer than ever, and every day is a gift for Kelsey and Enrique. As the family gathers around their Thanksgiving table at home in California this year, they know what they’re thankful for.

“Even in the midst of all the craziness in this world right now, being able to have a normal holiday and spending time at home together is truly a miracle,” Kelsey said. “In 2020, you need to focus on the simple things and be thankful for those. We’re so thankful for every single day of good health, happiness, and being able to be together as a family.”