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Sibling superhero to the rescue

Lifesaving bone marrow donations from his sister helped James get back to normal kid stuff.

Young girl with long blond hair and boy with dark hair and headphones playing a video game on couch.
James’ family calls his sister "Super Sister Sarah"—she's always looking out for her younger brother.

When the school nurse called Margaret Brown last October to say her son, James, had a seizure on the playground, her first thought was, “Are you sure it’s my son?”

James, who was 7 at the time, is a vibrant kid with a great sense of humor. Even James’ teacher, the first to reach James on the playground, couldn’t believe what she was seeing at first. Given his joking personality, she thought he might be playing around, too. But the school nurse confirmed that James had seized for about three minutes. 

“It was just such a shock to hear. He was fine that morning. He had just had a physical a few months before. We really had no idea what might have happened,” Margaret explained. “I called my husband, Sean, raced to the school, and we headed to the emergency room.”

After a battery of tests, the Browns learned that there was something seriously wrong with James’ blood—the levels of white cells, red cells and platelets were way off the mark. Emergency department doctors decided to transfer James to Cohen Children’s Medical Center.

Young boy with dark hair in a blue sweatshirt playing with a ship in a bottle.
Now 10, James is back doing all the things boys his age love.

“Once we got to Cohen Children’s, we were hearing things like bone marrow failure disease, bone marrow biopsy, aplastic anemia, leukemia,” Margaret said. “But eventually, after a bone marrow biopsy, we learned James had severe aplastic anemia.”

This rare and serious medical condition, in which the body does not produce enough new blood cells to stay healthy, would require a bone marrow transplant to treat. James would be cared for at Cohen Children’s Bone Marrow Failure Program. Margaret said James’ pediatric hematologist/oncologist, Joel Brochstein, MD, was just incredible, helping explain the procedure—and why James’ 8-year-old sister, Sarah, might be his best chance at a bone marrow match.

“He explained to us that the best possible outcome, a 95% cure rate, is with a sibling donor—though there’s only a 25% chance that a sibling is a match—and that James would also need medications and chemotherapy before the transplant,” Margaret said.  

“By the grace of God, the odds were on our side, and Sarah was a match. When we explained to her that she had something in her body that could help fix the boo-boo inside of James’ body, she said, ‘OK, Mommy, then I’ll give it to him.’ We call her Super Sister Sarah—she’s been looking out for James since the day he was born.”

It wasn’t easy for a boy so young to understand what was happening and why he couldn’t go home—or why he needed to stay in an isolation room. “We told him that something was wrong with his blood that needed to be fixed,” Margaret said. “He was excited when his child life specialist, Sammy, gave him his own Nintendo Wii game!” Though the Browns are grateful to the medical staff at Cohen Children’s, they commend everyone’s care and kindness. “Trevor, who would come in to clean James’ room, would always end up staying and playing a video game with him,” Margaret said. “And the chaplain, a young man named Adrien, would also come and spend time with him.” 

Through the transplant process (in the end, James had two transplants), Dr. Brochstein and his team were unfailingly kind and caring to both James and Sarah throughout the procedures and follow-up treatments. He was also very accommodating to Margaret and Sean.

“Dr. Brochstein was always right there answering my questions. He never lost patience,” she said. “But what was more amazing to me was what great banter he had with James and Sarah. So many doctors talk to the parent and never talk to the child. Whenever Dr. Brochstein came into the room, he spoke to James first. It was really beautiful to me—and it really put James at ease.”

Young boy with dark hair in a blue sweatshirt playing outside with a football.
Flag football is just one of James’ favorite pastimes.

It’s now been three years since that scary day on the playground, and more than a year since James’ second transplant, and he’s thriving. He’s no longer on any medication and spends his days as any typical 10-year-old boy would—joining a flag football team, competing with the chess club at school, running track and playing Fortnite whenever he can.

“If you looked at him now, you would never know anything was wrong with him,” Margaret said. “We can’t say enough about Dr. Brochstein and the staff at Cohen Children’s. Every single person we encountered showed our son and daughter kindness and compassion. I only hope we can pay it forward one day.”