Technology Lets Ailing Mom Virtually Touch Her Child


The baby boy brought to mind astronauts landing on the moon--his round face moving across the screen in a herky-jerky fashion that seemed strangely out of time. But to his mother, confined to a hospital bed 100 miles from home, the smiling boy in a camouflage suit was altogether real.

Dabbing her eyes with the corner of her bedsheet, she waved to a camera perched on top of the video screen. Later, she typed out a message to her son, Derek: "How are you? Miss you already. Happy 4-month birthday. Love you."

In the fast-moving field of consumer electronics, this marriage of video and computer technology is last year's news. For Colleen Cleary-Myers, a patient at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, it's a miracle that has eased the pain of separation.

"This is as close as we can be without touching each other," said Cleary-Myers, 30, of Summerdale, Penn. "I can watch him grow. It's a good feeling."

Cleary-Myers began her strange journey about a year ago, when two pieces of news hit her like a one-two punch. She was pregnant, and she had leukemia.

Doctors made the leukemia diagnosis while reviewing a set of routine prenatal tests. The tests revealed that her white blood cells were proliferating wildly--a hallmark of chronic myelogenous leukemia, a potentially deadly disease.

She rejected her first option: to abort the baby and proceed directly to a bone marrow transplant.

Her best hope for a cure, the treatment offers a 60 percent to 70 percent chance of long-term survival but involves highly toxic chemotherapy that would have doomed her pregnancy.

"My husband and I just didn't think God would put a little child inside me just to kill it to save my life," she said.

Instead, she decided to delay the bone marrow transplant until she delivered the child. During the second trimester, she began taking a mild chemotherapy drug that kept her white-cell count in check while posing little risk to the baby.

Cleary-Myers was tired throughout much of her pregnancy and went into premature labor at 26 weeks. Three times, she was hospitalized so doctors could stop her contractions with medication. Finally, in the 35th week, Derek could wait no longer.

The brown-haired boy was born Oct. 2, a healthy 6 pounds, 9 ounces.

"He's a strong boy," his mother said. "Mom and baby went home in two days."

Cleary-Myers spent the next four months enjoying time at home with Derek and her husband, Michael Myers. "Then, I came down here to get it over and done with so I could come back home and get on with a normal life."

Her oncologist, Dr. Carol Miller, said her patient didn't compromise her survival chances by delaying the transplant. That's because the disease has yet to enter its acute phase, when it turns aggressive and difficult to treat.

But the treatment is long and arduous. She will receive an intravenous drip of chemotherapy drugs that will kill her bone marrow, wiping out her diseased immune system. After a day's break, she will receive an infusion of healthy marrow from her sister, Clara Laskoski.

She will spend a month in her hospital room and, if her recovery goes smoothly, a few weeks more in an outpatient facility a few blocks from the hospital.

She will endure nausea, fatigue and other ills--and, perhaps worst of all, the separation from Derek.

Seeing the difficulties ahead, a friend saw an opportunity to bring her a little closer to her baby. Angelo Del Monte, who owns a small video production company in Harrisburg, Pa., talked with friends at Electronic Data Systems, the large computer systems company with an office in town.

The company is well-known for its involvement in local causes, including the Special Olympics. Officials there readily agreed to provide the equipment.

"The incremental cost was just a couple hundred bucks," said Bob Blecher, an EDS employee who helped assess what was needed to establish an electronic link between hospital and home. "All we needed was a computer, a little eyeball video camera that comes with software, and a modem."

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