Katie's cure makes medical history
CHILDHOOD for Gulmarrad’s Katie Pulling stopped at age 11 when doctors told her she had a disease that they had no name for and no cure.
More than 10 years later, it would take a world-first medical breakthrough, personal courage, and a near-death experience to give Katie the life she never thought possible.
Her story made headlines and medical history this year after researchers at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital identified Katie’s previously undiagnosed condition and successfully treated it with an experimental stem cell transplant, but not before Katie had to make the biggest decision of her life and endure the treatment that nearly killed her.
By this time, Katie had spent nearly half her life in and out of hospitals; the slightest cold would escalate into a severe chest infection and a merry-go-round of sickness, hospitalisation and recovery at home would follow.
She was malnourished, had severe dermatitis and was ordered by doctors at age 16 to drop out of high school.
It was a case of glandular fever that was the tipping point for doctors and would lead to the risky procedure to replace her immune system.
“I was told that they would have to find a suitable donor, have my immune system destroyed by chemotherapy and replaced with a new one,” Katie said.
“When they mentioned chemo I said ‘no way’ and then realised I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to and was going to die anyway – I may as well fight.”
The first meeting with doctors on deciding to go through with the procedure, Katie described as devastating.
“I was told the odds of curing my disease were less than that of curing cancer,” she said.
Her sister came up as the perfect blood match and the date was set.
Katie underwent six days of chemotherapy, after which her glands shut down, her throat was left in threads, her hair fell out and then the transfusion took place.
All seemed to be going well until one month later on her 21st birthday, Katie developed complications from the procedure and was placed in a coma for five days, suffering organ failure – it would be months before she left hospital to start her new life.
Head of QIMR’s Immunohaemotology Laboratory Dr Maher Gandhi, who researched Katie’s case for three years prior to the procedure, said that the transplant was dangerous, but the results were amazing.
“The defect in Katie’s immune cells has been fixed and to our knowledge this is the first time this disorder has been reported,” Dr Gandhi said.
“We hope this will help anyone who has presented with the same symptoms and has had no success with treatments.”
Katie is living the life she was meant to with aspirations and plans like every other 20-something, but with an appreciation for life that most at any age will never quite understand.
“I’m studying business and hope to open my own boutique, but I’m told I have to take it slowly,” Katie said.
“But at least now I can be young, I can study and I can plan for my future.”
Katie’s case is detailed in a paper in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.