For Nicole Owens and her younger sister, Allison, there was a time when even ice cream could not put a smile on their face or a spring in their step. Both sisters were born with spherocytosis. Their blood cells are spherical, not round.
"Because they have an unusual shape, they get trapped prematurely in the spleen, so they don't live as long in the bloodstream. That's why the children become anemic," said Dr. Russell Ware.
"I'd take her to preschool and pick her up, and she'd be asleep in the van before I could get out of the parking lot," said Annette Owens, Nicole and Allison's mother.
The girls inherited the condition from their father, Mark, who as a child had his spleen removed.
"I actually had an emergency splenectomy. My spleen was getting so big, it was going to rupture," he said. "Nicole, she had been so anemic before and pale and her lip color -- you really couldn't tell she had lips."
"Traditionally, the operation of choice has been a total splenectomy -- taking out the whole spleen," said Dr. Henry Rice.
However, removal of the whole spleen can leave a child suseptible to infection. The Owenses put off surgery for Nicole and Allison has long as they could, and then the girls got sick.
The girls needed blood transfusions, and surgery was inevitable. Doctors at Duke tried a new technique in which they removed only part of the spleen, leaving the healthy part behind.
"We know from animal studies and from clinical studies that you only need a portion of the spleen to retain enough immume function," Rice said.
Rice removed 90 percent of Nicole's spleen and 70 percent of Allison's. Their increase in energy was almost immediate.
"Just a couple days after surgery, they were up and moving and the first week or two, it was completely different," Mark said.
The girls are now recovered, and they each have a small spleen to help them fight infections in the future. They come back to Duke Children's Hospital for regular check-ups.
"I think we took for granted how close we live to such a great institution here," Annette said.
The Owens family and WRAL are supporting a special effort to raise money for Duke Children's Hospital. TheDuke Children's Miracle Network Celebrationwill be held Sunday, June 3 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.