Sister’s bone marrow saves sibling, now they raise hope for a cure

THE COURIER/photo by Alexa Altman

Ringlet curls, bright smiles and a love of the stage bond sisters Caroline and Lisette Watters.

So do the pinhole-sized scars on Lisette’s back.

At age four, Lisette donated a life-saving portion of her bone marrow to her sister, Caroline, who at just two years old, was diagnosed with cancer.

Now 10 years in remission, Caroline, 12, and Lisette, 14, from South Ozone Park, are closer than ever, raising awareness about blood cancer and participating in events for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, including the upcoming September 22 Light the Night Walk in Forest Park. While Caroline’s cancer has subsided, memories of the seven months lived in hospitals and hoping for good news remain.

In February of 2001, once-active Caroline was diagnosed with Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP), a blood platelet disorder, after growing lethargic and developing purple splotches all over her skin. The girls’ mother, Susan, joined an online support group for parents of children with ITP. Comparing stories with other parents, Susan became convinced her daughter had a completely different disease. She found a new doctor, who conducted a second round of tests.

In December of 2001, shortly after Caroline’s second birthday, they received her diagnosis — Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).

“It was obviously the most devastating thing, said Susan. “But it’s the sort of thing you have no choice but to move forward and be strong.”

Caroline underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but doctors agreed her only chance of survival was a bone marrow transplant, best retrieved from an immediate family member.

Doctors estimated Lisette would be a 25 percent match to her sister. Tests showed, due to their closeness in age, they were a more than perfect match.

Susan said Lisette was not forced into the procedure. Instead, she was proud. As a needle dipped into Lisette’s hip bone 150 times, extracting donor marrow, Susan said she remained brave, ecstatic to help her sister.

“I remember the day I gave her the transplant,” said Lisette. “I was really excited to give her my bone marrow.”

Shortly after the proceedure, doctors cleared Caroline to return home.

Fundraisers and awareness events for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society have become standard to the entire family. The girls speak on behalf of the non-profit, educating others about the importance of bone marrow donation and putting ever-necessary faces to a cause. Susan runs a Light the Night team, organizing fundraising marathons and triathlons. Last year, Caroline was named “Girl of the Year” by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for raising the most amount of money.

While Caroline’s memories of her cancer have faded, she remains forever grateful to her older sister.

“She’s my sister and I love her,” said Caroline. “I’ll never forget it. She saved my life.”

The two, she says, are best friends.

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