Jennifer Zile and her younger brother, Ian, won't be able to spend Christmas together this year, but he's already given her the biggest gift of his 5-year-old life.
Nine days ago, Ian donated a pint of his bone marrow to Jennifer, 8, who has acute myelogenous leukemia. Her family and doctors hope the donated marrow will make new blood cells the way her own marrow would and cure the leukemia.
The transplant was done Dec. 14 at Children's Hospital in Washington, with the marrow administered to Jennifer through an intravenous tube while she and her mother, Linda, watched. The marrow travels through Jennifer's circulatory system and winds up inside the bones.
"It (the marrow) looks like blood," said Zile. "It was hard to believe that little bit, going into her, was going to save her."
Despite some expected boredom because of limited visitors to her sterile room, Jennifer is doing well, said her mother and doctor.
"She has an exercise bike in her room, and she's already put 100 miles on it," said Patricia Dinndorf, an oncologist at Children's Hospital who has been treating Jennifer.
Jennifer has to be in a sterile room for another month or so, Dinndorf said. The nine days of intensive chemotherapy, to kill her own cancerous marrow before the transplant, left her vulnerable to any kind of infection, Dinndorf said.
"She's very critical, because something could happen rapidly," Dinndorf said. But for now, she said, Jennifer is in "good condition. She's up, she's eating, she's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."
The family, including father, Eric, lives on Main Street in Manchester.
Linda works at Maurer & Miller Meats, and her husband is a supervisor at a quarry in Baltimore County. They and Linda's mother, Dolores Nevin, have been taking turns visiting Jennifer every day, scrubbed and in sterile gowns. Ian can't go because children carry more infections than adults, Zile said.
Ian returned to his kindergarten class at Manchester Elementary School last week. Jennifer hopes to be back in her third-grade class there by the end of the year. Ian is still sore in his hip where doctors inserted a syringe to take the marrow out of his pelvis, but is doing well, Zile said.
"He knows he's helping her," Zile said. She said they have avoided words such as "saving her life," to keep him from feeling too much pressure.
"Sometimes he talks about her dying. We tell him she's not going to," Zile said.
Both Jennifer and Ian know about the sister who died before they were born. The Ziles' first child, Karen, died of a congenital heart defect at 13 months.
The pain of Karen's death came back Sept. 7 when the Ziles first learned Jennifer had leukemia, before they knew Ian would match her well enough to be the donor, Zile said. They were shocked that her month-long fatigue, fever and swollen glands turned out to be leukemia.
"She still asks, 'Why me?' But when the doctors and nurses tell her we have to do something, she says OK," Zile said.
"She's lucky her brother was a match," Dinndorf said. When the donor is a sibling, the chances of the transplant curing the patient are much higher than for a parent or an unrelated donor, she said.
The Ziles will have another Christmas celebration when Jennifer gets out. But she will get some of her presents Tuesday, including a factory-sealed Barbie wiped down with a disinfectant, Zile said.