A life owed [UPDATED]Published 11:20am Monday, June 18, 2012 Updated 11:21am Monday, June 18, 2012
Many medical conditions that are now looked upon as non-issues used to take lives and devastate families in the 1950s. Former Battle Lake resident Janelle Hickerson said she owes her life to a doctor who performed a cutting-edge procedure in 1954 while she was only a few weeks old.
“My mom said she came into the room where my bassinet was, and the sun shined on me, and my skin was green and yellow,” Hickerson said. “I looked like a dead cat.”
Hickerson was suffering from what is commonly known as Rh disease. Because of an incompatibility between her and her mother’s blood, Hickerson’s body was destroying its own blood cells.
Most people have Rh-positive blood, but about 15 percent of the Caucasian population have Rh-negative blood. A problem can occur when an Rh-negative woman has an Rh-positive child. A mother can develop antibodies to fight off the foreign Rh-positive blood of the fetus.
These antibodies can enter the fetus and remain in the bloodstream after the child is born. This often isn’t a problem for the first child, but each subsequent Rh-positive child is at a greater risk than the last.
Hickerson was the second Rh-positive child in her family, with her 16-year-old brother being the first. Little was known about Rh disease at the time, and many parents had no choice but to watch their children die from it; however, a new doctor in town knew of a possible cure.
After being rushed to Lake Region Hospital, Dr. Leong Hom said he had a plan. At the time, Hom was fresh out of medical school and knew of a procedure that was foreign to other doctors in the area, said Hickerson.
Hom wanted to perform a blood transfusion to boost blood cell reproduction, and Hickerson’s brother and a family friend volunteered for the job.
This is a fairly simple procedure in the 21st century, but a blood transfusion involving an infant was far more complicated in the 1950s. The doctors had to cut into Hickerson’s skin to access a vein. She received her last of several blood transfusions on April 6, 1954.
“Dr. Hom was born in China and came to our hometown in the U.S. at just the right time so that I’m here today,” Hickerson said. “He came from half a world a way and saved my life. I’ve talked to families who said they lost children in 1955, ‘56 or ‘57 because their doctors didn’t know anything could be done.”
Since the completion of her transfusions, Hickerson hasn’t had any blood-related health problems. She now lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but Hom still lives in Fergus Falls.