Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Football [Print without images]

Sunday, January 29, 2006
Harris, 12, loses fight against leukemia

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

Nikolette Harris, the Oregon girl whom college football fans rallied around last December in her fight against leukemia, died Friday in a Portland hospital after complications from a cord blood cell transplant, her family said. She was 12.

Fans Unite For Nikolette's Cause
In December ESPN.com's Wayne Drehs wrote about Nikolette Harris' fight against leukemia and the fund-raising campaign that united college football fans through their message boards set up to help Nikolette and her family. To read Wayne's story, click here.

For much of her life, Nikolette battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common cancer found in children. According to the National Cancer Institute, 80 percent of children afflicted with ALL recover from the disease. Nikolette had already done so twice when the disease returned for a third time in October 2005. Doctors recommended a life-saving bone marrow transplant, but a matching donor was not found.

At the end of December, with time of the essence, doctors proposed a cord blood transplant in which they transfer the young stem cells harvested from a newborn's umbilical cord into the patient.

According to Joyce Harris, Nikolette's grandmother, that procedure went off without complications on Jan. 17. Nikolette responded well the first week, riding a stationary bicycle that was placed in her room.

"I asked her how fast she was able to go," Joyce Harris said in an e-mail. "She said 13 miles an hour, but that it tired her out quickly."

On Thursday Nikolette was moved to intensive care because fluid had accumulated around her heart and chest cavity. Doctors performed a procedure to drain the fluid and the following day, Nikolette's family received word that the transplant was showing signs of taking hold.

But about a half-hour later, Nikolette went into cardiac arrest and the intensive-care physicians were unable to restart her heart. Both parents as well as her grandparents were by her side.

"It was sudden -- and devastating," Joyce Harris said.

In her last journal entry on Jan. 10, Nikolette wrote, "I am feeling OK for now but things will tend to get worse but I will be fine. Thank you to all who raised money for me. I will post as often as I can. Please don't get mad if you don't hear from me for a while. Thank you everybody."

Nikolette's story received national attention in December, when college football fans from across the country joined forces to raise money for her bone marrow transplant, expected to cost the family $125,000 after insurance.

After first appearing on the fan website E-Duck.com, Nikolette's story spread to fan message boards at Oklahoma, Texas, Auburn, Nebraska, Iowa and several others.

The result was a record $103,826 in donations for the month of December, the most money raised in one month over the Internet for the Children's Organ Transplant Association.

"Thank you to our new Sooner and Duck friends for taking on a challenge that reminds us what sportsmanship is all about," Nikolette's parents, Marc and Irina, wrote in the online journal on Dec. 30. "And thank you to college football fans from all the other schools for picking up this challenge and showing the same spirit."

In the same entry, Nikolette's parents also singled out the thousands of worldwide well-wishers, noting that their words of encouragement in their daughter's online guestbook "helped Nikolette stand defiant and in good spirits."

"She'd say to me, 'Grandma, how am I ever going to write thank-you notes to all of them,' " Joyce said. "I told her we'd find a way."

This weekend, messages of good luck turned to prayers for the family. Everyone from nurses to football fans to other families with sick children across the country visited the site to offer their prayers and thanks to a little girl who touched more people in 12 years than most will in a lifetime.

Wrote one visitor late Saturday night:

"Your brief visit on this orb changed the lives of a lot of people who followed the progress of the battle against your disease. You brought together a lot of people who wished for not only your survival here, but became aware of the needs of other youngsters with similar conditions. Your brief life did inspire many others to share love, benevolence, and caring."

Said her grandmother: "Her legacy, we believe, is that she brought awareness to children like herself. Many people have let us know that because of her they have become donors themselves. This, we believe, will only help other children like her."

Funeral services are scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m. at St. Nicolas Church in Portland. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to the Children's Organ Transplant Association at http://www.curenikolette.org/donations.html.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.