A six-year-old girl and her baby brother are closer than ever after she bravely saved his life — by becoming his bone marrow donor.
Caleb Ashby needed an urgent bone marrow transplant after a shortage of infection-fighting blood cells left him in danger of being killed by a common cold.
Big sister Sophia was an 100% match and bravely demanded her worried parents to let her be a donor by declaring: “If I give Caleb my bones he will live”.
The schoolgirl had her bone marrow extracted from her hip, before it was donated to poorly Caleb, just a few beds away.
Parents Kelsey Stynes, 28, and Lee Ashby, 31, had to wait for two weeks to find out Caleb’s body had 100% accepted his sister’s bone marrow.
Four weeks on, the four-month-old is set to make a full recovery, but protective Sophia – who has a stronger bond than ever with her little brother – has refused to leave his side.
She’s recovered from her op, but is attending the hospital school after being given special permission to keep a close eye on him until he goes home in six to eight weeks.
Beautician Kelsey, from Barwell, Leicestershire, said: “It makes me so emotional just thinking about it.
“I am completely overwhelmed by it all. She just amazes me. She has been fantastic for the whole way through this.
“She hasn’t stopped smiling and she knows she has done a good thing but I’m not sure if she knows how amazing she is.
“If she didn’t want to go ahead with it then we wouldn’t have Caleb here with us now.
“She saved Caleb’s life. She has done an amazing job and without her we wouldn’t have reached where we are now.”
Mum-of-four Kelsey, who has two other sons, Zachary, one, and Tyler, eight, found out Caleb was going to be born with a heart defect when she was 22 weeks pregnant.
He had truncus arteriosus – only one large blood vessel leading from his heart instead of two – and a hole in his heart, when he was born in December last year.
At just two-weeks-old Caleb underwent a major eight-hour operation, in January, to insert a plastic stent into his heart to do the job of the blood vessel he was born without.
Caleb spent five days in intensive care and doctors soon realised the newborn’s wound was not healing.
Further tests revealed he had “no white bloods at all” meaning he was at serious risk of infection.
Doctors warned he could be killed by a common cold and his body was too weak to properly recover from the heart surgery.
They discovered he had bone marrow failure – when the soft centre of the bones fails to produce enough healthy blood cells to keep up with the body’s needs.
Kelsey says doctors said if they had known about Caleb’s blood condition, they wouldn’t have performed the heart surgery.
The family were told the only option to save his life was a bone marrow transplant, to give him a new immune system.
Kelsey said: “It was very touch and go at that point. We thought we had been through the worst after his operation.
“That was a very scary time for us. We had to trust the surgeons with our baby.
“I was so relieved it all went to plan. I just fell to the ground.”
Kelsey, Lee, Sophia and Zachery were tested as potential matches, on February 18.
Zachery was ruled out but doctors knew even before the results came back that, as Caleb’s parents, Kelsey and Lee’s bone marrow would at least be a 50% match.
Because of the urgency and severity of Caleb’s condition, doctors had prepared a blood transfusion using Lee’s partial match before the results came back on February 27.
A partial match transfusion would have a lesser chance of success and would require Lee’s bloods to be manipulated in a lab prior to the op.
The major risk would be that the transfusion would fail and Caleb’s body would reject his dad’s bone marrow – placing his life on the line once again.
But on the same day Lee was preparing to undergo the transfusion, tests revealed Sophia was an 100% match – handing her baby brother a vital lifeline.
Kelsey said: “I had mixed emotions. Sophia was so willing but I didn’t want to put Sophia through it if she didn’t want to.
“But she said ‘I want to help’. She said ‘if I give Caleb my bone he will live’.”
Doctors had already spoken to Sophia about what the test results could mean for her if her bone marrow ended up being a full match.
Kelsey says her daughter “smiled and was happy” when the family found out her bone marrow was a 100% match.
Sophia was put through a series of psychological assessments before being cleared to be her brother’s donor.
She had the option to opt out – but courageously stuck to her word and went ahead with the blood marrow donation on March 5.
During her procedure, Sophia was put under general anaesthetic before stem cells were removed from the bone marrow in her hip bone, ready to transfuse into her baby brother.
Then, having endured a week of chemotherapy to prepare his blood for a transfusion, Caleb underwent his second life saving operation on March 6.
If he didn’t have the life-saving op – Kelsey says her baby “probably wouldn’t be here today”.
She says Caleb couldn’t have sustained life with bone marrow failure and he would have been given end-of-life care if all other options had failed.
Thankfully the operation was successful, but Kelsey and Lee faced an anxious two week wait to find out if Caleb’s body had fully accepted his sister’s bone marrow donation.
During that period Caleb was kept under constant supervision in an isolation unit where he could only see his mum and doctors.
To keep the area sterile, Kelsey would have to change her shoes and swap her outside clothes for inside clothes to cut the risk of carrying germs from the outdoors inside.
But to Kelsey’s overwhelming relief, Caleb was given the all clear and doctors described the transfusion and a “textbook” procedure.
Kelsey said: “They were very happy with how it went. That two week wait was really difficult. We became obsessed with the numbers.
“I doubted it every second of every day. We just wanted to know if it had worked or not.
“He’s recovering well and it’s all about the numbers now. We can’t leave hospital until his blood is stable.
“He will have to be kept a very close eye on for the rest of his life and will be in and out of hospital for check ups for the next year.”
Caleb and Kelsey are still in hospital and expect to be there for another eight weeks.
Caleb is yet to set foot in the family home and is still being monitored around the clock in hospital.
Meanwhile his mum and sister are living at the nearby Ronald McDonald House, which provides a free ‘home away from home’ accommodation.
Sophia has also opted to stay by her brother’s side and is attending the hospital school while he fully recovers.
She recovered from her 50 minute procedure within 24 hours but was kept away from her brother during her recovery.
Kelsey says it was “hell” having two poorly children and says it was tough for her to put Sophia through her operation in order to save Caleb.
She said: “It was such a hard thing to do, as a mum. I spent all day worrying about them both.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself and ended up just waiting by the recovery bay for Sophia to come out.”
The family hope to be reunited at home within two months, and Kelsey says she is dreaming of booking a big family holiday to celebrate Caleb’s miraculous journey.
Kelsey said: “They adore each other. Sophia is amazing with him and they are the best of friends.
“They are closer than ever now. Sophia knows she has done an amazing thing.”