As It Happens

'Her dying wish.' Ontario parents want speedier stem cell transplants after daughter's death

Teenager Laura Hillier died before she could get the stem cell transplant she desperately needed. Now her parents are calling on the Ontario government to do something to cut down on wait times for patients like their daughter.
Laura Hillier died of acute myeloid leukemia on Jan 20. (Facebook/Hope for Laura Hillier)
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She was part of her high school drama club and loved performing in musical theatre plays. She was described as a young woman with "poise" and "strength," whose "pure spirit shone through right until the end."

A school photo of Laura Hillier. (Facebook/Hope for Laura Hillier)

In January, Laura Hillier died of acute myeloid leukemia. She was 18 years old.

Until the end of her life, Hillier made it her mission to speak with the public about the roadblocks she faced getting a stem cell transplant in Ontario. Even though she found a stem cell donor match, Hillier never got the transplant she needed because of long wait times and a lack of beds for the procedure.

She said, 'Please don't let me die in vain, Mum. Don't let this happen to anyone else.'- Frances Hillier, mother of Laura Hillier

In December, from her hospital bed, Hillier made this plea for someone to fix the problem:

Laura Hillier's plea for the government to cut wait times for stem cell transplants in Ontario 0:53

Since Laura's death, her parents have been reaching out to doctors, politicians and government officials with the hope that other patients won't have to go through what their daughter did. Frances Hillier, Laura's mother, joined As it Happens host Carol off in our Toronto studio for a feature interview.

"Laura wanted it to be a mission to fix this for people," says Hillier. "She said, 'Please don't let me die in vain, Mum. Don't let this happen to anyone else.'"

Laura was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia five years ago. After multiple rounds of chemotherapy, she went into remission.

"She had four-and-a-half years of remission. A really good remission. Because it's a very, very aggressive leukemia," says her mother. "We thought we were almost in the clear. And then, unfortunately, she relapsed last May."

Laura Hillier loved musical theatre and was part of her high school drama club. (Facebook/Hope for Laura Hillier)

When Laura relapsed, her doctors told her she would need to get a stem cell transplant. Laura was able to find a "perfect" stem cell donor match. So her parents were surprised when doctors told them that their daughter would be getting another round of chemotherapy, instead of a stem cell transplant.

"We pressed them with questions and, eventually, we were told that there was no medical reason why she needed this. They called it 'consolidation chemotherapy.' We were told the only reason she needed to have it was because there was a backlog and they had to keep her in remission while she waited for a transplant."

Laura was staying at Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. Her mother says there were 33 people ahead of her daughter on the wait list. The hospital performs 4 or 5 stem cell transplants a month. Hillier was also told that there were similar wait lists for stem cell transplants at hospitals across Canada.

The Hillier family on vacation. (Frances Hillier)

This situation has been called a crisis by some of Ontario's top transplant doctors. Hillier has called the system "cruel, inhumane and potentially deadly."

On Sunday, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins acknowledged the crisis and announced that a task force would be looking into the problem. 

Hillier says she and her husband were "pleased" by the announcement.

"Once your stricken with these acute leukemias, you can be dead within a few weeks. These are really significant diseases that need to be dealt with," says Hillier. 

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