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Youngster on road to recovery

February 28, 2007|by JANET HEIM

GAPLAND - Susannah Willems is the picture of health. She has a full head of wavy blond hair and is, her mom says, at almost 4 feet, 8 inches, the tallest student in the third grade at Pleasant Valley Elementary School.

"It's amazing. Thank God. If you look at her, you'd never know all she's been through," her mother Christina Willems said.

Until a year and a half ago, Susannah was battling for her life. The enemy was the acute lymphoblast leukemia, diagnosed in 2001.

The cancer attacked her bone marrow, leaving her unable to fight infection. On doctors' advice, Christina and Stewart Willems agreed to let Susannah undergo chemotherapy.

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More than two years of chemotherapy seemed to cure the disease, but in early 2005, her doctors determined that the leukemia had survived.

The Willemses agreed to a bone marrow transplant for Susannah. Her oldest brother, Zach, now 14, volunteered to be the donor.

The transplant was performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on Sept. 6, 2005, almost four years after the initial diagnosis.

Susannah continued to be home-schooled by her mother while her immune system was recovering.

Susannah's primary care is now conducted by oncologists at University of Maryland Medical Center and her pediatrician in Hagerstown. The Willemses say they are still concerned about Susannah getting sick, because she doesn't have a normal immune system yet.

She is off all medications now, and the family tries to avoid being around sick people. Because Susannah's immune system was destroyed by the chemotherapy, she has to be reimmunized, with each immunization a month apart.

Beginning this past fall, the 8-year-old has been attending Pleasant Valley Elementary. Feeling much better, she loves heading to school every morning.

"Last year, I used to get sick a lot more often. Now I'm going to school, feeling better and I don't get sick as much," said Susannah who said the best part is all the new friends she's made.

"She loves it. She loves everything about" school, said her mother, Christina. "She thinks it's the greatest place on earth."

She also enjoys playing in the Pleasant Valley basketball league.

After the first story about Susannah appeared in the March 30, 2006, Daily Mail, Willems said they received a lot of cards from readers.

"The kindness of strangers - it's very touching," Willems said. "It's easy to feel like you're all alone."

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