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Side by Side: A Leukemia Survivor and the Physician Who Treated Her

5,000 Bone Marrow Transplants


Sanela McKinney came to the United States in 2000 as a Bosnian refugee with dreams of a bright future. Just a few years later, in 2003, she was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. She endured years of treatment that ultimately did not stop her disease. In May 2010, she became one of the more than 5,000 patients who have benefitted from bone marrow or stem cell transplantation at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

 

Although McKinney’s donor was not an optimal match, Washington University physician John DiPersio, MD, PhD, was able to manipulate the donated cells through a clinical study to minimize complications. Today, McKinney is cancer free.

 

Sanela McKinney

Wife and mother of two, St. Louis, Mo.

 

On Learning She Had Leukemia

I wanted to jump out of the bed and run away screaming. Tears started running down my face. I looked at my daughter and swore to myself that I was not going to give up.

 

On Meeting DiPersio

From the moment I walked in his office, I knew I could rely on his team. I was on so many different medicines, and each time I had a problem, Dr. DiPersio was ready to try something new. He never let me down.

 

On the Transplant Procedure

The first two weeks were really tough. I lost my hair and a lot of weight, and there was a time when I couldn’t get up from the bed.

 

One Year Later

I feel great when my kids tell me I look beautiful or when my husband kisses me and tells me, ‘We did it, honey.’ I still fear the leukemia will come back. But I know that if I have to go through this again, I will do it with Dr. DiPersio and his staff because I trust them with my life.

 

John DiPersio, MD, PHD

Virginia E. and Samuel J. Golman Endowed Professor of Oncology at Washington University and deputy director of the Siteman Cancer Center

 

On McKinney’s Transplant

She participated in a clinical trial in which we did some nifty things. We manipulated the stem-cell graft to remove the T-cells and enhance the activity of cells called natural killer cells. Then we did the transplant. She’s done very well.

 

On the 5,000-Transplant Milestone

Taking care of one transplant patient is a phenomenal amount of complicated work. It requires a critical mass of physicians, physician-scientists, scientists, nurses, nurse practitioners. We do about 400 a year. It’s an enormous undertaking.

 

On Treating Transplant Patients

No matter how much you tell a patient about transplant, they are still unprepared. And somehow, because most have very good constitutions plus solid family support, they are able to keep their cool and live through it. Most of these patients and families are like cream—they rise to the top. They seem to deal with it much better than I ever could.


Read more about McKinney and the history of Siteman’s bone marrow transplant program.

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