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The battle of 'Lady J': Jaimie Senger faces setback in cancer treatment

Jaimie Senger listens to a graduation speaker during her surprise graduation ceremony at Brainerd High School in May. The surprise ceremony was planned when it was learned she might miss commencement due to cancer treatments. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)1 / 4
Using a favorite animal of Jaimie Senger's, the dragonfly, family and friends are wearing T-shirts honoring the 18-year-old. Submitted2 / 4
Jaimie Senger soaks up the sunshine and enjoys the summer grass after being allowed outside the hospital for the first time in several weeks. Submitted photo3 / 4
Wearing a "Battle of Lady J" T-shirt, Jaimie Senger smiles in a portrait taken this summer, just before her second round of chemotherapy to treat her acute myeloid leukemia. The photo was taken by nonprofit Flashes of Hope. Submitted photo4 / 4

While most 2015 Brainerd High School graduates spent their summers hanging out with friends and preparing for the next stage of their lives, Jaimie Senger spent hers in the hospital receiving cancer treatments. Now, she's fighting for her life after developing a rare syndrome associated with the very treatments intended to cure her.

The Brainerd Dispatch first spoke with Jaimie in September 2014, when she was declared cancer-free after years of enduring the impacts of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Diagnosed in May with the second form of leukemia she's faced in her 18 years of life, Jaimie was the guest of honor at her very own graduation ceremony organized by BHS staff before treatment required her to leave her senior year early.

This summer, Jaimie underwent radiation and high-dose chemotherapy before receiving a stem cell transplant in mid-August. The transplant involved a blood transfusion with stem cells from a donated umbilical cord, an alternative to the traditional bone marrow transplant performed on leukemia patients.

Two weeks after the transplant, a preliminary biopsy showed no indication of leukemia in Jaimie's bone marrow, which had been successfully replaced 100 percent by the donor cells. Jaimie, or "Lady J" as the more than 700 Facebook followers know her from the page her family uses to post updates on Jaimie's journey, was set to leave the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital Sept. 20.

Just days before her planned move to a nearby Ronald McDonald House, where she was to stay for a few more months following the transplant, Jaimie began experiencing shortness of breath that concerned her doctors. Although they initially suspected pneumonia, tests of fluid in her chest came back negative for the infection. This led her doctors to another, more difficult conclusion: they believe Jaimie is suffering from idiopathic pneumonia syndrome, which the National Cancer Institute reports is a condition that can occur in patients following stem cell transplants.

The incidence of the syndrome is rare - one study placed the risk among youth transplant patients at 6 percent - and the typical outcome is not encouraging. Carolyn Reller, Jaimie's mother, said she's not surprised Jaimie would be among those affected, given she's already among a rare group who developed a secondary cancer as a result of treatment for an initial cancer. Reller said she chooses not to research her daughter's afflictions and trusts in the doctors, who continue to tell the family they believe they can help Jaimie.

In the last few days, Jaimie's condition has deteriorated - her lungs have partially collapsed because of the extended time she's been immobile and hooked up to the ventilator. The hospital moved Jaimie to a special bed, allowing her to be flipped to her stomach regularly to ensure the stress on her lungs is distributed evenly. She's also receiving high-dose steroids to treat the syndrome, although Reller said it's essentially a guessing game for what might work. "Idiopathic" itself refers to a disease where the cause is unknown. A possible next step, should the steroids not work over this weekend, is a little-researched drug.

Throughout this time, Jaimie has been heavily sedated, a wish her mother promised to keep if Jaimie ever needed a breathing tube again.

"Sometimes I just want to grab Jaimie's hands and pull her to a sitting up position and tell her to wake up," Reller wrote in a Sept. 27 Facebook post on the "Battle of Lady J" page. "I miss her pretty eyes, her smile, her laugh, her spirit. I can hardly wait until the tubes come out and I can cuddle with her and see her beautiful eyes and she can talk to us."

Reller is asking for all the help she can get through the form of thoughts and prayers to make sure she and the rest of Jaimie's family are able to see her sparkling eyes again.

"We are praying that this stops and she stabilizes so she can begin to heal. We are all devastated for our girl but (are) praying with all our might," Reller wrote Thursday night. "It warms my heart to know how many people care about Jaimie and our family! I can't lose my little girl."

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

(218) 855-5874