Christopher Melkonian was six years old when he came down with a low-grade fever and diffuse bone pain. Unsure of what was happening, his parents Darlene and David took him to Children’s National Health System and soon found out that Christopher had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a type of blood and bone marrow cancer that affects white blood cells.
ALL is the most common type of childhood cancer, making up 75 percent of all cancer diagnoses in kids. Shortly after the diagnosis, Christopher was admitted to the Oncology Department. “It was all kind of in slow motion, but it all happened really fast at the same time,” said Darlene, Christopher’s mom.
Immediately after the Melkonian family arrived, care teams and volunteers stepped in to make sure Christopher felt comforted and at ease. “We always knew we were in the right place,” Darlene said. “A lot of it had to do with volunteer services. They treated Chris like a superstar.”
When Christopher learned he had cancer, he understandably became withdrawn. Within 24 hours of his diagnosis, a patient care volunteer named Claire visited him with a deck of UNO® cards. Christopher’s spirits immediately lifted, and UNO® with Claire quickly became his favorite game. When talking about the first few days in the hospital, Darlene said Claire “helped turn things around” for Christopher, and he began to play the game everywhere with everyone. A week later, Christopher was discharged from Children’s National and would begin chemotherapy.
Christopher was nearly halfway through chemotherapy at Children’s Montgomery County Outpatient Clinic when oncologists found leukemia in his central nervous system during a routine spinal tap. Unfortunately, Christopher’s leukemia had relapsed.
At that point, Christopher began a new chemotherapy protocol to get into remission, and his care team began searching for a bone marrow donor to replace his body’s unhealthy blood marrow. Samantha, Christopher’s ten-year-old little sister, was found to be a perfect match for donation. Christopher received additional intensive chemotherapy and radiation in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit as well as the bone marrow transplant from his little sister. He remained at Children’s for 28 days while he waited for the marrow to settle in his body.
When Christopher first returned home he could barely walk, but in just four months he had built up enough strength to re-enter school and resume a normal life amongst classmates. Five years later, he was passing his teammates on the soccer field and earned his black belt in karate.
When Samantha was older, she told her family that she understood everything that was happening and that she was glad to help her brother by donating her bone marrow. “I just knew I was going to be a match,” she told her parents. “You didn’t even need to test me.” Today, Christopher is a cancer-free 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Connecticut and is studying nursing. Christopher goes to every single Husky sporting event and loves spending time with his sisters.
The compassionate care provided by nurses, volunteers, and doctors at Children’s has stuck with the Melkonian family to this day, and especially with Christopher, who is now giving back by dedicating his life to working with patients and their families.
“After experiencing the phenomenal care from nurses at Children’s National,” said Christopher. “I felt that becoming a nurse myself was the best way to say thanks. I want to ensure that every kid living with a chronic illness like I did does not have to do it alone.”