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Inside University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital: Caring for children with cancer

Right in our backyard, Northeast Ohio is home to incredible doctors, researchers and scientists who are saving children’s lives every day.

CLEVELAND — Every year, more than 100 kids in Northeast Ohio enter the doors of University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital only to find out they have cancer. 

That’s far too many. 

However, right in our backyard Northeast Ohio is home to incredible doctors, researchers and scientists who are saving children’s lives every day.

3News Laura Caso is peeling back the curtain and walking the hall of the cancer floors at UH Rainbow Babies in order to share stories that must be told.

Dr. John Letterio is the Chief of Hematology and Oncology at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital. He is passionate about curing children and setting them up to live their best lives no matter their diagnosis.

“You’ll never make it [feel like] home but you can make it close to home,” said Dr. Letterio. “[This hospital] is an amazing place Laura, it really is.”

UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s hospital treats kids dealing with pediatric cancers and blood disorders. The children are cared for by a team of doctors, nurses and staff who are doing everything they can to cure our kids and the treatments have evolved dramatically over time.

“It was always surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy but today, immunotherapy is really changing the outlook for many patients. The biggest example is CAR T-cell therapy,” said Dr. Letterio.

CAR T-cell therapy genetically modifies patient’s cells, then infuses them back to find the cancer cells and attack. According to Dr. Letterio, in four generations, the survivor rate has improved dramatically.

“A child with leukemia had about a 10% chance of being a long-term survivor [and] fast forward now to 2022… a child with standard risk leukemia, the most common cancer that we see, has about a 90% chance of being a long-term survivor.”

He says this is thanks in part to innovate new therapies and major upgrades in where children are treated. One of those patients receiving new therapies is 16-year-old Jack Sawyer.

Jack has been fighting Ewing’s sarcoma for six months – it’s an aggressive and rare form of bone cancer.

“I was kind of just shocked and it took a few months to sink in,” said Jack. “It’s been rough. I have chemo every week and every day now I have radiation.”

Dr. Lisa Hackney is a pediatric hematologist oncologist at UH and also Jack’s doctor.

“What Jack is going through is something no kid his age should have to go through and there’s a lot about it that’s unfair but when one embraces a positive attitude like he’s doing and really have a fighting spirit it makes the aggressive therapy easier to tolerate.”

Jack’s parents never leave his side.

“He’s the strong one, he believes in pace positive attitude changes everything so every day he fights – he’s a fighter,” said Jack’s mother, Dawn Sawyer. “Every day we make the decision to move forward and that’s what we are doing…we are moving forward.”

The Sawyer family says their Mentor community is helping in the fight. Jack dreams of going back to school, walking into a store and getting his license. This family is thanking the hospital doctors and nurses who have made an imprint on their lives.

“I hope to defeat this and live a normal life,” said Jack. “I can’t wait to inspire other people to get through and come back and help kids out who are having bad days.”

And, that’s exactly what doctors include Dr. Letterio want, as well.

“You really care deeply about the care,” said Dr. Letterio. “Every one of those patients has had an impact and I’m blessed by that.”

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