A child saved becomes a teen hunting for cures
Former patient works with the doctor who helped save her life, as an intern in his research lab
When he looks at the ceramic sun hanging in his living room, Dr. Loren Walensky flashes back to the first few weeks of his fellowship on the cancer ward at Boston Children’s Hospital 14 years ago.
It was late on a Friday night in the emergency room. A 3-year-old girl, one of his first patients, arrived.
Kate Franklin had suffered from a persistent respiratory infection. She had ear infections and bruises everywhere.
Neither patient nor doctor knew it then, but the blond-haired, brown-eyed toddler with an irrepressible smile was about to embark on a 23-day hospital stay that would help save her life and forever make a mark on his.
This summer, Walensky and Kate were together again in the hospital. But instead of the two talking at her bedside, they worked in Walensky’s cancer research lab, where Kate, now 17, was his high school intern, studying treatments for drug-resistant cancers.
“Having the personal experience, it makes the research that we’re doing hit close to home,” said Kate, a senior at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro. “And it gives me a passion I might not have otherwise.”
Her journey to the lab began that August, 14 years back, when the Franklins were visiting their family’s summer home in Mattapoisett. Cousins were playing outside by the water, but Kate stayed glued to her mother’s side.
The 3-year-old was fatigued, as usual, suffering from yet another ear infection. Her mother gave her a playful pinch on the arm, and to her mother’s alarm, Kate soon formed an enormous bruise. That prompted Emily Franklin and her husband, Jim, to drive Kate to the Boston Children’s ER late on a Friday night.
After Kate underwent a series of blood tests, a young doctor, one month into his fellowship, met with the Franklins in the Boston Children’s emergency room to deliver the news: Kate had acute lymphoblastic leukemia and would require two years of chemotherapy, including immediate admission to the hospital for one month of intensive inpatient treatment.
“I wanted to lose it,” Emily Franklin said. “We became part of a club that we didn’t want to become a part of.”
After hearing the news, she put her hands on Walensky’s shoulders. “I will see you at her wedding,” she told him.
Kate began chemotherapy two days after arriving at Children’s, and the life of the family revolved around their older child. Emily and Jim Franklin rotated nights in the hospital, ensuring someone was always by Kate’s side.
The family celebrated the first birthday of Kate’s brother, Joe, on her hospital bed.
The family grew close to Walensky, whom they call “Dr. Loren.” He saw them through worrisome days when Kate’s fever spiked or side effects of chemotherapy emerged.
Desperate for anything that might help, they enrolled Kate in a Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s clinical trial analyzing leukemia treatments. The research offered the promise of improved outcomes for children with leukemia.
“You are with people at the worst of the worst possible times, and your job is to fix that intellectually and medically, but you’re also a part of the emotional piece,” Walensky said. “You get very close with people during crisis.”
Early in Kate’s treatment, Walensky became overloaded with patients. He reluctantly had to pass some of them on to other doctors.
“You definitely want to make sure you keep a hold onto Katherine,” Walensky recalls a nurse practitioner telling him. “She’s going to be your ray of sunshine.”
After about a month of chemotherapy, Kate was in remission. She regularly returned to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, seeing Walensky for outpatient chemo and intensive monitoring for two years. Slowly, and happily, the two began spending less time together.
After five years, Kate was proclaimed cured. She no longer had to worry about her leukemia returning. Emily Franklin bought Walensky a ceramic sun as a thank-you gift.
Even when Kate had to return only for annual checkups, the family remained close to Walensky.
When Kate needed a letter of recommendation to apply to her selective high school, Walensky provided it. When she put on her school uniform the first day of high school, her father snapped a picture of her and her friends. He texted it to Walensky.
And when Kate wanted to explore becoming a physician — perhaps a pediatrician — she again reached out to her doctor, asking if he knew of anyone taking high school interns for the summer.
“Send me your resume and transcript and I’ll see what I can do,” Walensky told her.
He took Kate as his own intern, as part of a program that provides opportunities for high school students considering careers in science.
Much as her clinical trial from 14 years ago helped yield clues about cancer treatment, the research she did this summer enabled Kate to help patients facing battles similar to what she endured.
Walensky still has snapshots of the little girl in her hospital bed, her hair short from chemotherapy.
“Kate loved all the nurses, but every time Dr. Loren showed up, she lit up,” Jim Franklin said.
In the lab, the two were teacher and student. But when Walensky returned home at night, he often looked at the ceramic sun hanging on his living room wall, which shines a light on a memory of a young doctor and a child he helped save.
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