Today, on the fifth anniversary of a bone marrow transplant that hundreds of Colville area residents helped provide, Nick Thresher is happy to be just another fifth-grader at Fort Colville Middle School.
“It’s not apparent to me or to the kids that he’s ever had any problems,” said his teacher, Mary Howell. “I don’t think the kids really remember, but it was a real success story.”
Before his transplant, Nick suffered from an exceptionally rare blood disorder called Evans syndrome, shared by only a handful of people in the country. It caused his disease-fighting antibodies to destroy the red cells and platelets in his blood.
Nick seemingly spent more time in hospitals than at home as one treatment after another failed. Although much improved after the transplant, Nick still was hospitalized frequently for a couple of years - with spinal meningitis, among other complications.
This year, though, he has missed only a few days of school, mostly as a precaution when there has been an outbreak of some illness.
“I feel a lot better,” Nick said. “I do more stuff than I used to do.”
That includes riding his bike, snowboarding, even some rope-assisted rock climbing.
“I took him snowboarding a couple of weeks ago, and it was real inspirational,” said Nick’s father, Cliff Thresher. “One thing that sticks most in my mind was when we went fishing and he was in the canoe and he had a trout on. Nothing could have been better.”
His teacher says Nick is still catching up in some subjects, but he’s an eager learner. And he’s found his niche as a saxophone player in the school’s beginning band class.
“He’s good,” fellow saxophone player Kyle Peterson said. “I’m third seat and he’s fourth.”
Nick arched an eyebrow and gave Kyle a conspiratorial glance last week when the clarinet section delivered a somewhat squawky “romance” version of “This Old Man.” He beamed when the teacher praised the saxophone section.
“He has this neat mixture of how to get along and deal with other kids and adults as well,” band teacher Dave Quistad said. “He seems to be able to fit into any situation.”
At home, Nick is a typical boy. Excusing himself to another room, he released a giant burp and announced with satisfaction, “Ahhh. Got it out.”
Not quite 12 years old, he still suspects girls are agents of an evil empire. He’s fond of Nintendo and Legos, and would play with his G.I. Joes if he could find them.
Nick was 6 when his doctor, Spokane hematologist Frank Reynolds, determined his only hope was a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow manufactures blood cells, and Nick’s marrow was defective.
The idea was to destroy Nick’s defective marrow with chemotherapy and replace it with healthy marrow from his brother Zachary, then 11.
Friends of the family began a community fund-raising drive to help with thousands of dollars in expenses that insurance wouldn’t cover.
Evans Syndrome had never been treated with a bone marrow transplant as far as anyone knew, and insurance companies don’t pay for experiments. The Thresher family’s insurance company, Qual-Med Health Plan, refused to pay - and the community redoubled its efforts.
Among other fund-raisers, cops played exhibition basketball, elementary school kids collected pop cans, middle-schoolers had a cake walk with pizzas and high school students went Christmas caroling for cash.
Kids also peppered Qual-Med with letters that would have shamed Ebenezer Scrooge.
“Could you just find it in your heart to save someone’s life?” wrote Ryan Wolfe, a third-grader at Aster Elementary, where Nick was in kindergarten.
Qual-Med officials soon changed their minds, citing new information that a bone marrow transplant had been used successfully to treat a disease similar to Evans Syndrome. In fact, it turned out that marrow transplants had much better success with Evans-like diseases than in some standard uses, such as leukemia.
“It was a very easy decision when we got that information,” said Dr. Neil Nemec, Qual-Med’s senior medical director.
“I just couldn’t be happier for Nicholas,” Nemec said last week. “Any time you can help a child who has the potential for 70 or 80 years of life, that’s wonderful. That’s one of the best uses of health-care resources.”
Even with Qual-Med’s contribution, uninsured costs were enormous. Diane Thresher said the family would have been hopelessly in debt if it weren’t for approximately $57,000 - now spent - that people all around the Northwest contributed to a trust fund.
“It was a special event that touched all of our lives forever, and I hope others have that kind of success, too,” Cliff Thresher said. “I still feel like we ought to do something on that income tax form and have a national children’s health fund instead of a presidential election campaign box to check.”
Diane Thresher said Nick continues to suffer some immune-system problems, including arthritis and trouble with his red blood cells. But his blood-cell counts are normal now, and his difficulties pale in comparison to those he had before the transplant.
Nick is short for his age, but his mother rejects any suggestion of giving him growth hormones that might renew his immune-system problems.
“You can live with being short,” she said.
Dr. Jean Sanders said she is “not anticipating anything but good news” when she examines Nick later this month. Sanders is director of pediatric bone marrow transplants at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where Nick’s transplant was performed.
Nick has been off steroids for two years and his other medications have been greatly reduced. He no longer has to take medicine at school except for an occasional migraine.
His improvement allowed Diane Thresher to go back to school for a nursing degree. She is now in her third semester at the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education in Spokane, commuting from her home 10 miles north of Colville at least four days a week.
“Prior to when Nick got sick, it never occurred to me to go back to school,” she said. “I really admired the nurses he had over the years, really wonderful nurses.”
She hopes to do home-care nursing in the Colville area after she graduates in May 1998.
In other developments since Nick’s marrow transplant, his brother Jeremy graduated from high school 1-1/2 years ago and is now working in a video store. Brother Zachary is now a high school sophomore and an accomplished motorcycle mechanic.
Cliff and Diane Thresher divorced last September. Both noted there is an extraordinarily high divorce rate in families with chronically ill children.
“It’s just years of stress,” Diane Thresher said.
She said it took her a long time to believe Nick’s improvement is real.
“I remember one day he was flying a kite, and he was running in the wind and laughing,” she recalled. “All of a sudden, it just stuck out: This kid is well.”
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