Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Sister Gives Girl, 5, a New Chance at Life

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Sister Gives Girl, 5, a New Chance at Life

Article excerpt

The sister who saved her life almost wasn't allowed into the United States.

Last December, Yarelis Bonilla, 5, had high-risk acute lymphocytic leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant.

But the donor who was a perfect match was a girl she had never met, a sister who lived in El Salvador. Twice that sister -- Gisselle Bonilla, 7 -- was denied a visa to the United States.

When she finally was allowed to visit on humanitarian grounds -- after the intervention of a U.S. senator -- Gisselle gave Yarelis part of her healthy bone marrow and a new chance at life.

On Monday, Yarelis left Hackensack University Medical Center 27 days after that transplant, happy and -- her family and medical team hope -- healthy. The disease she was diagnosed with last summer was in remission, and she looked forward to a slice of pizza at home with her family.

"There's a very good chance that she's cured of this disease," said Dr. Alfred Gillio, who performed the transplant on Jan. 24. "We'll watch her very carefully. The highest risk of relapse is in the first year."

The girls' grandfather, Gertrudis Ramirez, said the two sisters were very happy, but "the sad part is, she [Gisselle] knows she has to go back."

Her visa lasts just 90 days. She is scheduled to return to El Salvador on March 21.

Gisselle and every member of Yarelis' family were tested as possible donors when tiny Yarelis was first diagnosed with leukemia. Only Gisselle, who lived thousands of miles away, matched perfectly.

Without a transplant, the extremely acute form of leukemia is treated with three years of chemotherapy, Gillio said. The chances of survival are about 30 percent.

With a transplant, the odds of survival increase to 70 to 75 percent, he said.

The challenge was to get Gisselle to the United States. She lived with her maternal grandmother in Ilobasco, about 30 miles northeast of San Salvador. Her parents had left for the United States when she was a baby. Yarelis was born two years later in the United States, making her an American citizen. …

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