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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

UMass program connects med students with patients

WORCESTER — The first time Meg Preissler met Jameson Laliberte, the little boy was having a bad day. He had just had blood drawn for what seemed like the millionth time. Another trip to the hospital, another round of poking.

Preissler understood. She knew what it was like to be switched from room to room, poked and prodded by different doctors, mired in a fog because of kidney failure.

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Preissler was nervous, but she broke the ice, sharing her story with Jameson and his mom. She told him about how, as a college sophomore, she was diagnosed with a kidney disorder and by 20 had undergone a kidney transplant.

He was exhausted, but Jameson listened. And he understood, because his kidneys had failed, too.

“He said, ‘I have to show you something,’ ’’ Preissler said. “It was his scar from his surgery, and his mom said, ‘You know, he doesn’t show everyone that.’ It was pretty cool. I was like, OK, he thinks I’m cool.”

Officially, Preissler is the 8-year-old’s buddy through an initiative called Sidekicks that pairs ill children with novice medical students at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Preissler is a second-year student. Unofficially, she is his friend.

Their pairing is no accident: Preissler was chosen to be the boy’s mentor because of their shared history, a bond forged by loss and survival.

“The first two years of medical school are a little overwhelming at times because you’re really taking in so much information,” said Preissler, a 28-year-old aspiring pediatrician. “Getting a chance to hang out with Jameson puts it in perspective why you’re putting yourself though those two years.”

On their first day together, when Jameson showed Preissler the backward L-shaped scar that takes up most of his small torso, it was a reminder that in a matter of six months, he had been through the wringer. He was diagnosed with a rare cancer. His right kidney was removed and a heart condition repaired during a nine-hour surgery. And he lost a 6-inch portion of his large intestine because of complications from the operation.

In June, doctors removed Jameson’s other cancer-stricken kidney, relegating him three times a week to dialysis treatments, each lasting three hours.

Meg Preissler, who has had a kidney transplant, gives Jameson Laliberte a chance to focus on things besides his illness.

BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF

Meg Preissler, who has had a kidney transplant, gives Jameson Laliberte a chance to focus on things besides his illness.

Jameson took his seat by the dialysis machine at UMass Memorial Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon, closing his eyes and looking away the two times the nurse inserted needles into a surgically implanted fistula in his left arm. The fistula, visible as a bump in the boy’s slender arm, connects an artery with a vein in order to create the rapid blood flow necessary for dialysis, said Jameson’s doctor, Ann E. Salerno.

No sooner was the second needle in than Jameson summoned Preissler to come play with him. He had not seen her for about a week and a half, and they had some catching up to do. He was the only child in a room full of elderly dialysis patients.

“In 2004, they won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Who was it?” Preissler asked Jameson as they began a tough round of the question-and-answer game Brain Quest.

“Red Sox . . . no, Yankees,” he quickly answered.

“No, the Red Sox!” Preissler replied. “You were right the first time!”

“Oh!” said Jameson, quickly moving on to the next question.

Jameson does not ask Preissler too many questions about her kidney transplant, she said. He is more interested in telling her about his day at school, or trying to beat her at the games they play.

“But you know what? He is a tough kid, and he never gets into the feeling-sorry-for-himself mode,” Preissler said. “He still wants to be a kid. He’s amazing.”

For Jameson’s mom, Julie LaPrise, Preissler is hope personified.

“She had kind of lived through a portion, not as severe as Jameson’s, but she knew the process involved, and she said once you get a new kidney you’ll feel great,” LaPrise said. “Meg has supported us in every aspect that we could possibly imagine. Jameson adores her. He loves when she’s around. It takes his mind off his dialysis treatment. . . . Sometimes, I don’t know what we would’ve done without her.”

And that, said Dr. Naheed Usmani, is exactly the reason that she created Sidekicks in 2007: to give seriously ill children an outlet to focus on things other than their disease or treatment.

“There’s a lot of isolation and suffering on the part of the parents and children, and I wanted to see about a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters to provide companionship,” said Usmani, an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at UMass, and pediatric hematologist and oncologist at the hospital. “There’s an emotional connection. You become a family member almost.”

Preissler was diagnosed with a condition called IgA nephropathy nine years ago, and she received a kidney from her older sister a year later. Although Preissler never had to endure dialysis, Jameson still looked to the medical student when his doctors were trying to figure out how to best treat his renal cell carcinoma, a kidney cancer that is rare among children.

Jameson takes a cocktail of daily medications, including oral chemotherapy. He also had to go on a diet low in sodium, potassium, and phosphorous, which meant giving up some of his favorite foods, including milk, chocolate, peanut butter, and pizza.

“His father and I sat down and had a talk with him,’’ said LaPrise, who runs a housing program for adults with mental illness in Gardner. “We said his issues were because of cancer. He asked if he would die. We said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

On Tuesday, doctors declared Jameson free of cancer, clearing him for a kidney transplant. He is on the waiting list for a donor organ, and because of his age, he goes to the top of the list, Salerno, his physician, said.

“I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to beat all this stuff,” LaPrise said.

Just as the game of Brain Quest was getting interesting Wednesday afternoon, Preissler had to go back to class, much to Jameson’s disappointment.

“Sorry, dude,” Preissler said. “I can stop in on Friday.”

“Can I ask you one more question?” the boy said, not wanting to let go quite yet. “Can you see a grizzly bear on the state flag of California or West Virginia?”

“California,” she said.

“Yes!”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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