Gisselle Bonilla, a little girl of 7, has saved the life of her younger sister Yarelis.
"Absolutely, that’s true," says Peri Kamalakar, Yarelis Bonilla’s doctor. He is the director of pediatric hematology and oncology at Barnabas Health and head of the Valerie Fund Medical Center there.
Yarelis, 5, is scheduled to be discharged this afternoon from Hackensack University Medical Center after receiving a bone marrow transplant from Gisselle on Jan. 24. Yarelis suffers from acute lymphocytic leukemia.
"We thought Yarelis would have to stay longer," Kamalakar says. "But she has done so well she can come home a little earlier. She is getting stronger." She is "in a state of remission," says the cancer specialist.
"Her bone marrow is now producing normal cells, and so we can say the transplant was a success. We are not finding leukemic, abnormal cells."
This good news almost didn’t happen. Yarelis’ condition was diagnosed in August. Soon after, Gisselle, a citizen of El Salvador, was twice denied a visa to come to the United States so she could donate her blood cells to her sister, an American citizen, born in this country. Tests showed she was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant to Yarelis.
Only the work of the American Friends Service Committee and the intervention of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) led to a decision by the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to grant Gisselle "humanitarian parole" so she could come to the United States and save her sister. She arrived Dec. 23.
At the time, Kamalakar expressed concern about the delay. Yarelis had experienced frequent temperature spikes because of the leukemia and had to undergo two difficult chemotherapy sessions while waiting for the transplant. If she had to wait much longer, he says, the little girl might not have survived.
Whether the remission will last is still an open question. The longer Gisselle’s transplanted bone marrow continues to produce normal cells inside her sister’s body, the better the chance the often-deadly disease will not return and Yarelis will live a normal life.
"I would say that, if in two years, there is no return of abnormal cells, then we begin having confidence the disease will not return," says Kamalakar, who has been treating children with blood cancers for more than 30 years.
"The girls’ mother and father and I are very happy about what has happened and we are grateful for everyone who played some part in making sure Gisselle could come here," says Ramirez, an American citizen whose youngest son is a Marine awaiting deployment overseas.
"We could see that Yarelis was getting better every day, but we were still surprised she could come home so soon."
Ramirez’s son Dagoberto, a permanent resident, is the father of Gisselle and Yarelis.
The plight of the ailing little girl came to light after Neil Mullin and Nancy Erika Smith, family friends of Ramirez, learned about the denial of the visas to Gisselle. Mullin and Smith, a married couple who are also law partners, contacted both The Star-Ledger and Menendez’s office.
The newspaper published articles about the sisters in this space.
"We are grateful to The Star-Ledger for saving Yarelis’ life," Smith says.
Picked up by Spanish-language media, the story spread around the world and led the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, to call on the "conscience" of the United States to let Gisselle come here to save her sister’s life.
Smith, however, says she remains angry at employees of the U.S. Embassy for denying the visas, "requiring Yarelis to go through two life-threatening bouts of chemotherapy."
"We hope Sen. Menendez continues his support of the family and investigates this grave misconduct by our embassy in El Salvador," she says.
Kamalakar says Gisselle recovered "very quickly" from the procedure and is doing well. He expressed concern about the impact on the girls of their possible separation. He says Gisselle might be called upon again to provide bone marrow to Yarelis if the leukemia returns.