“Miracle child” Mackenzie Friedman was diagnosed with a potentially fatal blood cancer at just four months old. 

“She’s hardcore. Determined, tenacious. Super strong-willed. She takes on new challenges and she’s so chilled when she comes out the other end. I’m hoping that by January, by her first birthday, we will be home, and she will be healthy and happy. But it’s difficult to predict,” says Megan Harrington-Johnson.

Megan and her husband, Bronson Friedman, have lived in an intensive care unit for 120 days – amid a global pandemic – watching their little daughter Mackenzie, who is now just eight months old, battle cancer. 

“As much as we’re seeing her grow in hospital, we’re still getting to see her grow,” Megan says. “When we came in here, she was so small; we were terrified. It was tough. But we have learnt so much, as a family, about cancer, and her and ourselves.”

All of this began with a fever on Mother’s Day. Megan noticed Mackenzie’s temperature was up, and took her to her GP, who advised they see her paediatrician. “I remember driving to the hospital very clearly. I actually said to Bronson in the car, ‘What if it’s something like cancer?’”

A full blood panel revealed blasts (abnormal white blood cells) in the baby’s blood. 

“Mackenzie is special for a lot of reasons,” says Dr Nadia Beringer, her oncologist at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre. “She was healthy at diagnosis, whereas infants with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) usually have other tell-tale signs that something is not right.”

AML, also known as acute nonlymphocytic leukaemia, is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It develops when the bone marrow produces an excessive number of blasts that prevent the production of other cells, such as red blood cells and platelets. This leads to infections, anaemia and abnormal bleeding.

Without treatment, it is usually fatal. 

“My first impression was of a healthy, four-month-old baby. We don’t often see them healthy on the outside with disease on the inside,” says Dr Beringer. “Infants with AML tend to have bad cytogenetics, or chromosomal abnormalities. And once we began to test her properly, we realised Mackenzie’s genetic make-up puts her at extremely high risk.”

The family has since become part of the furniture at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, travelling every step of their child’s long and complex treatment journey. 

“From the moment we first met the team here it was clear they are experts we can trust with our daughter’s life,” says Megan. “We were in such close contact with our oncologist – we knew we could pick up the phone or WhatsApp her in the middle of the night if something was wrong, and we did, on a number of occasions.”

Not many of those steps have been easy. “We’ve gone down quite a journey with Mackenzie,” explains Dr Despina Demopoulos, a paediatric intensivist in the paediatric ICU at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre. “She’s been in and out of here with infections, she’s been on ventilators, she’s been critically ill. At one stage, she was on the ventilator for four or five weeks. There were a few times when we thought she wouldn’t make it.”

Doctors were able to declare Mackenzie in remission shortly after induction, an initial course of chemotherapy aimed at dramatically reducing the abnormal white blood cells in her system. It worked. Today, she has regular biopsies of her bone marrow to confirm she is in remission, but because of her high-risk cytogenetics, she needs a bone marrow transplant to have a chance at long-term survival.

Mackenzie was due to receive her transplant in November 2021. “Mackenzie has defeated and defied so many obstacles, so we are hopeful,” says Dr Beringer. “Transplants are complicated, and she may relapse. Recovery is also not easy. Obviously, only time will tell. But we are hopeful”

The secret to Mackenzie’s success? Teamwork, says Dr Demopoulos. “We consulted with experts in the US and UK to get their feedback on her course of treatment and input on studies that may help. Our nurses, our staff, even management – we have met around her bed in the middle of the night to make sure Mackenzie was okay.”

A crucial part of that team, she says, is Mackenzie’s family. “We are probably one of the most informed cancer-kid parents that you’ll find,” says Megan, “as we really have been talked through everything, from treatments to symptoms to ramifications, through to the stem cell transplant”.

“We strive to offer every patient who comes in these doors first-world medicine on a par with what they would get anywhere in the world.”

Dr Nadia Beringer

Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre is the first and only private teaching hospital in South Africa. The hospital was established to create a facility in the private sector for training of sub-specialists. This allowed the university to extend sub-specialist training into the private sector to complement the existing public sector training programmes – including those at The Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, Chris Hani Baragwanath, and Helen Joseph hospitals. 

In 2005, Mediclinic SA became a partner with Wits University, and was also awarded the management contract. 

“We work as a team and we all function together,” says Dr Beringer. “That’s something I feel puts us a cut above the rest. We strive to offer every patient who comes in these doors first-world medicine on a par with what they would get anywhere in the world.” Trustworthy expertise, and a pair of parents determined to defy the odds… “We call her our miracle child,” says Dr Demopoulos, “because she really has survived so much. But she’s also really climbed into all our hearts. She’s got a wonderful personality, she’s got wonderful parents, and she’s really touched this team. We love her”.

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