Taylor Swift Sings with 6-yr-old Leukemia Patient

This is part of why people love Taylor Swift.

Instead of endless headlines reporting another episode of bad behavior, Taylor Swift spends her spare time visiting children with cancer. This past weekend, she showed up at Boston Children’s Hospital to visit with 6 year old Jordan Nickerson. Jordan, who was born with the genetic condition Williams Syndrome is currently hospitalized with leukemia.

Jordan, who is a big Taylor Swift fan, was delighted to see her and joined in with singing and dancing when she sang “We are Never Getting Back Together” to him:

After singing Taylor hung out at the hospital for hours, sharing snacks (Jell-O we’ve heard) and even playing a fierce game of air hockey with  Jordan.

What is Williams Syndrome?

Williams syndrome is a rare genetic developmental disorder that affects many parts of the body. This condition is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability or learning problems, unique personality characteristics, distinctive facial features, and heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) problems. Williams syndrome affects an estimated 1 in 7,500 to 20,000 people.

williams-syndromePeople with Williams syndrome typically have difficulty with visual-spatial tasks such as drawing and assembling puzzles, but they tend to do well on tasks that involve spoken language, music, and learning by repetition (rote memorization). Affected individuals have outgoing, engaging personalities and tend to take an extreme interest in other people.

Young children with Williams syndrome have distinctive facial features, as described in this picture.

A form of cardiovascular disease called supravalvular aortic stenosis (SVAS) occurs frequently in people with Williams syndrome. Supravalvular aortic stenosis is a narrowing of the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body (the aorta).

Additional signs and symptoms of Williams syndrome include abnormalities of connective tissue (tissue that supports the body’s joints and organs) such as joint problems and soft, loose skin. Affected people may also have increased calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcemia) in infancy, developmental delays, problems with coordination, and short stature. Medical problems involving the eyes and vision, the digestive tract, and the urinary system are also possible.

Tell me a little about childhood leukemias

Leukemia is a disease of the white blood cells and the bone marrow. It is the most common type of childhood cancer.

leukemia3Cells in the bone marrow, called stem cells, can become any one of the different kinds of blood cells (see diagram right). In leukemia, stem cells abnormally develop into blast cells and do not go on to become red blood cells, platelets or white blood cells.  This can lead to anemia (low red blood count), blood clotting problems, and increased risk of infection (low white cell count).

Although leukemias can develop as a slow or chronic illness, in children most leukemias are acute- meaning that they develop rapidly.

Acute childhood leukemia can develop in one of  two lines of white blood cells. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) occurs when lymphoid stem cells are affected (those outside the blue box) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) when myeloid stem cells are involved (within the blue box).

ALL is more common than AML (80 vs. 20%). ALL and AML can occur at any age, but ALL tends to occur in younger children age 2 to 8. AML is more common before 2 years old and in teenagers.

The symptoms of ALL include:

  • Fever.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint, dark-red spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
  • Bone or joint pain.
  • Painless lumps in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin.
  • Pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs.
  • Weakness, feeling tired, or looking pale.
  • Loss of appetite.

Patients with AML may have the following symptoms:

  • Fever with or without an infection.
  • Night sweats.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Weakness or feeling tired.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae.
  • Pain in the bones or joints.
  • Pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs.
  • Painless lumps in the neck, underarm, stomach, groin, or other parts of the body. When seen in childhood AML, these lumps, called leukemia cutis, may be blue or purple.
  • Painless lumps that are sometimes around the eyes. These lumps, called chloromas, are sometimes seen in childhood AML and may be blue-green.
  • An eczema -like skin rash.

Treatment of childhood leukemia has been one of medicine’s brightest success stories. A 2012 study from the University of Colorado found that “the 5-year survival rate for children and adolescents with ALL improved from 83.7% for those diagnosed between 1990 and 1994, to 90.4% for those diagnosed between 2000 and 2005. In the 1960s, the 5-year survival rate was less than 10%.”

For more information, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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