Life for Lizzie Bell is looking up.
The 19-year-old Salpointe Catholic High School graduate underwent a bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis a month ago, and the lifesaving measure was deemed successful.
“She has been given something that not everybody is given — a new life,” Dr. Jakub Tolar said in a Friday telephone interview.
Tolar is director of the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute and is on Lizzie’s transplant team.
Lizzie, who was treated at University of Arizona Medical Center, along with doctors in New York and in Minnesota, left Tucson two months ago to prepare for the transplant at UMMC. The first-ever successful bone marrow transplant in the world was done there in November 1968.
Lizzie was born with Diamond-Blackfan anemia, a rare disorder that prevented her body from producing sufficient red blood cells. Red blood cells are important because a protein in the cells called hemoglobin carries oxygen to the organs in the body.
Lizzie grew up in hospitals since she was a baby fighting the rare disease, which requires blood transfusions every two weeks. She had lost 95 percent of her bone marrow, and a donor who lives in Europe was found. He agreed to donate his bone marrow to Lizzie.
“She is doing quite well. We have very good news, and we are very happy,” Tolar said.
Lizzie is well-known because of her and her family’s work raising funds, sponsoring blood and bone-marrow drives, and educating the public about the urgent need for bone marrow donors.
Their work, with the help of countless volunteers and local businesses, made Lizzie and her rare anemia known worldwide when in 2009 the ABC reality show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” practically tore down the family’s home and built a new one.
Lizzie has not had any major complications. No infection. No signs of rejection. No blisters in her mouth. No tube feedings after the July 25 transplant.
“We are so happy with everything that’s happened with Lizzie,” said her mother, Kathy Flores Bell, who is living with her daughter at the Ronald McDonald House, which provides a home for families with children who have life-threatening illnesses. It is minutes away from the hospital.
Lizzie, who must wear a face mask when out in public, left the hospital last week and is being followed as an outpatient in the clinic, Tolar said.
In addition to her mother, Lizzie leans on her childhood friend, Kiley Oliver, 18, who remains by Lizzie’s side, helping her with her daily medication. Oliver also massages Lizzie’s body in an effort to soothe the pain in her bones, a common occurrence after a bone-marrow transplant.
Family members and friends are also taking time off from work or school to visit Lizzie, sharing positive thoughts and prayers, Kathy said.
In preparation for the transplant, Lizzie underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. After the transplant, Lizzie lost her hair, except for her eyebrows and eyelashes. She now has a metallic taste in her mouth, which affects her appetite. At times she craves chile, pizza and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Lizzie’s wardrobe now includes colorful knitted beanies and bright sunny yellow and peacock scarfs.
Lizzie is monitored daily and undergoes lots of laboratory work, which allows her medical team to know how she is faring. Lizzie takes about 60 pills a day, and “every week as she gets stronger and healthier, she will need less medication,” Tolar said. If all continues to go well, “she will be off all medication in about one year.”
“It is entirely possible Lizzie may spend Christmas in Tucson,” Tolar said.
Lizzie, described as a fighter by her family and medical teams, plans on attending Columbia College in Chicago, where she wants to study photography.
Lizzie was excited Thursday because she had her first outing since leaving the hospital. She was allowed to go to Target for an hour.
She stepped out into an evening breeze in 80-degree weather. A big smile erupted as Lizzie hopped in the Ronald McDonald House van with her mother and friend.
“We want to thank Tucson for all their prayers and support. Life is going very well,” Kathy said as the three went out for the evening.