In her own words: Jenna Sailsbury shares her story of survival
Senior Jenna Sailsbury has spent much of her life in and out of hospitals. At the age of 11, she was diagnosed a few days after Christmas in 1998 with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), with a Philadelphia positive chromosome.
“I had been sick with strep throat at two different times,” Jenna said. “After an enlarged spleen and lots of blood tests, I was diagnosed with the leukemia.”
Jenna was then sent to the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University (MCV VCU), where the diagnosis was finally made. Jenna endured six months of extreme chemotherapy with major complications. During that time, she learned that she had a rare form of leukemia and the chemotherapy alone would not cure it.
“The doctors told me that I had only a 5 percent chance of survival without a bone marrow transplant and a 33 percent chance of survival with a transplant,” Jenna said. “(The transplant) was my only option, so we searched all over the world for a bone marrow match.”
According to Jenna, her family and friends held the largest bone marrow drive in Virginia at that time. Her family and friends approached Jerry Falwell Sr. and asked if they could hold a drive on Liberty University’s campus. According to Jenna, he graciously welcomed this and a drive was held with thousands of students coming out to give their blood in hopes of being a match.
“It was during this time that we found out I also had a rare DNA,” Jenna said. “The doctors were not going to be able to find a bone marrow match for me.”
When it seemed that Jenna was running out of options and hope for survival, her aunt found an article that could possibly change everything.
“My aunt was actually looking through a ‘Better Homes and Garden’ magazine when she came across an article about cord blood transplants,” Jenna said. “She called and spoke with the head cord blood specialist in the world, Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg at Duke University Hospital, and she said ‘Bring her down here right away.'”
When Jenna and her family arrived at Duke, they were given a full page of possible matches. They were blown away with the hope they now had for the first time.
Aug. 3, 1999
Jenna received an umbilical cord blood transplant at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C.
Before the transplant, Jenna underwent chemotherapy and total body irradiation. Following the transplant, Jenna went through years of many complications, surgeries and near death experiences.
Although she missed all of middle school, only attended two full years of high school and had to wait a year before starting college, Jenna was able to begin taking classes at a community college in the fall of 2006 and transferred to Liberty a year and a half later.
“I was finally at Liberty, loving it and enjoying life, and then on December 29, 2009 tragedy struck my life again,” Jenna said.
Dec. 29, 2009
Jenna was taken to the emergency room at Johnston Willis Hospital in Richmond, Va. According to Jenna, she had been suffering with a continuous headache for a couple of weeks. After CAT scans were performed, Jenna and her family were informed that not only did she have two bleeds in her brain, a little less than golf ball size, but she had suffered a stroke.
Jan. 30, 2010
Jenna’s condition deteriorated. According to Jenna, the doctors could not figure out why her brain was bleeding and at this point the swelling had become so severe that her right hemisphere was going into her left hemisphere. Throughout her journey, Jenna’s mother, Kay, kept an online journal to keep friends and family informed along the way. On Jan. 30, 2010 at 12:44 a.m., the short entry reads, “Please pray. Jenna is not responding as she should. All her vitals are good except her blood pressure, very high. Please pray for her to wake up good.”
Jan. 30, 2010, 6 p.m.
Jenna was rushed into surgery. Her condition was rapidly getting worse, and she was unresponsive.
The surgeons preformed a craniotomy, trying to remove the bleed and relieve the swelling. According to Jenna, thousands were praying at the exact moment the surgery was taking place, including students at Liberty, and God mercifully answered these prayers. There were many months of complications, slow recuperation and therapies following the surgery.
Also, during this time, Jenna began to lose her hair. She was told by a specialist that when your body goes through trauma it saves the most vital organs first. Hair and nails are at the bottom of the list.
“This was a really emotional thing to go through, losing my hair, while I was still trying to fight back after the brain surgery and complications,” Jenna said. “I (thought), ‘Great, I’m 22 years old, and who at 22 has had to lose their hair twice.’”
Jenna had lost her hair once before while undergoing treatment for leukemia.
“My brothers shaved their heads to try and help me through this tough time,” Jenna said.
Jan. 16, 2011
Jenna returned to Liberty to complete her senior year. It had been six years since she began her college career.
“It’s amazing to see where I’ve come from, from a year ago to now,” Jenna said. “I shouldn’t be sitting here, but it just goes to show you how powerful God is.”
While Jenna was in the hospital, she received letters and tokens of encouragement and support, many of which came from her Liberty family.
“My family would read me things from Facebook and letters even if I wasn’t awake,” Jenna said. “When I heard about it, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that they were praying for me every convocation — that blew my mind.”
Jenna expressed gratitude and appreciation to her Liberty family.
“Thank you,” she said. “I think a lot of times people don’t see how their prayers are being answered so they don’t take prayer seriously. God is listening. I very well may not be here if it weren’t for all the student’s prayers for me. There are no adequate words to express my gratitude but from the bottom of my heart I do thank you so much.”
It’s incredible how far modern medicine has taken us, especially in such a short period of time. I’m sure we’ll have many more survival stories like this in the future than we already do have today.