A Twitter request led to a sick child and her mom receiving more support than they ever could have imagined. After Theresa Chapple heard that her friend's 4-year-old, Zion, was struggling following a bone marrow transplant, she asked her followers for a simple favor.
“Dear parents of small children, I have a 4 y.o. friend having a tough time,” Chapple tweeted. “I would like your help in making her smile. Could your child make and send Zion a get well card?”
Offers came flooding in from across the country and the world.
“When she called me and said something about 900 (responses), I was like, ‘I’m sorry, what?’” Zion’s mother, Sara Hicks, 34, of Trenton, New Jersey, told TODAY Parents. “I've become a little bit cynical of the world just because of the state that we're currently in.”
Knowing that strangers took the time to write to her child felt great, Hicks said.
After hearing about Zion’s experience with sickle cell disease, Chapple wanted to help. As an epidemiologist, she understands all too well how the pandemic changed hospital stays for families. Many of the services that support parents are suspended and families are feeling more isolated than usual. She hoped that cards would boost Zion’s mood.
“Sara posted a picture on Facebook of Zion saying that she hadn’t smiled in so long and she was just really sad and is having a hard time,’” Chapple told TODAY Parents. “All I was out to do from this is to try to get Zion to smile.”
It seems like others wanted to do the same.
“It really took off quickly,” Chapple said. “People wanted to know if there were other things that they could send, if Sara needed anything else with her hospital stay.”
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People have sent meal vouchers for Hicks and her mom, and Hicks' sorority sisters have donated toys to the hospital to help other children stuck there for long stays.
At only 4, Zion has been through a lot. The toddler was born with hemoglobin SS disease, also known as sickle cell anemia, the most serious type of sickle cell disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sickle cell disease causes round red blood cells to harden and become sticky to form a sickle shape, leading to the cells dying off early and resulting in a red blood cell shortage.
The painful disease contributes to other health problems. Even at her age, Zion has an enlarged heart from it. Still, the outgoing toddler — who started giving side-eye soon after birth and loves tap dancing, according to her mom — stays upbeat most of the time.
“She’s just super funny. She’s always got something to say,” Hicks said. “She’s just a really, really happy kid.”
The CDC says a successful bone marrow transplant can cure the disease. Hicks wants Zion to have a chance at a long, healthy life, so she opted for the procedure. Undergoing a bone marrow transplant is tough in many ways. The first challenge is finding a match. Only 23% percent of Black patients find a match compared with 77% of white people, according to Be the Match. But Zion had five potential donors.
“It was pretty incredible,” Hicks said. “So many things just aligned where it was like, 'This is the right thing.'”
When Zion arrived at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, she had to undergo chemotherapy to prepare her body for the transplant. That caused painful ulcers in her mouth and throat. Three times a day, Hicks has to hold her down to give her an alcohol-based mouth wash to treat the sores.
“You feel horrible because you want to be the person that protects them. But by hurting them you’re actually protecting them,” Hicks said. “That’s such a hard thing.”
Right now, Zion has no immunity as the donor bone marrow works to become her new bone marrow. Hicks has been sharing Zion’s story on her Facebook page, Zion, Warrior Princess: The Battle to be Cured, and with friends on social media like Chapple, who runs a Facebook group for Black parents on positive disciplining for children.
Hicks said all the positive responses have bolstered the family’s resolve. They expect to spend about six to eight weeks in the hospital as Zion recovers.
“The support has been really awesome,” Hicks said. “It has been hard. I have been really lucky that the hospital allowed my mom to be here with me.”
She said she hopes that as people understand more about sickle cell disease, their story will encourage Black people to donate bone marrow to children like Zion.
“Donating bone marrow is much different now than it was years ago,” Hicks said. “It’s easier for the donor than the person who is going through the transplant.”
Those interested in donating bone marrow can learn more at Be the Match.
People can send cards to:
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Oncology Unit, Care of Zion Hicks
3401 Civic Center Blvd.
Room 37 - 3 East Oncology
Philadelphia, PA 19104
CLARIFICATION: (Oct. 9, 2020, 6:19 p.m. ET) An earlier version of this story included a tweet that misidentified Zion's illness. She has sickle cell disease, not cancer.