Third-grader returns after again beating back leukemia

DANVILLE – Sitting in a hospital bed last July hooked up to three IVs, all Jenna McMillin wished for was to feel well enough to go to school.

"I missed my friends," recalled the 8-year-old Danville girl, who at the time was at St. Louis Children's Hospital fighting her second battle against leukemia and awaiting a bone-marrow transplant.

Jenna's friends at Northeast Elementary Magnet School missed her, too. She learned how much on Tuesday when she returned to school for the first time since relapsing last May.

Now cancer-free, Jenna grinned as she described walking through the front door with her parents, DeAnn and Joel McMillin.

"Everybody was in the hallway," she said. "They all said, 'Welcome back!'"

"It was such a happy moment," said kindergarten teacher Mary Tamalunis, who tutored Jenna at home. "To see her take that step ... brought tears to your eyes."

Jenna was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in February 2003 when she was 4. She underwent chemotherapy for 2 1/2 years.

Six months after the treatments stopped, the cancer returned.

"When it comes back the second time, it pretty much comes back with a vengeance," DeAnn McMillin said. "She had to take intense chemo and radiation therapy, and she also needed a bone-marrow transplant. That was her only means of survival at that point."

Doctors immediately started searching for a donor. They found one in Jenna's older sister, Brooke, now 13.

"We were so relieved," Deana McMillin recalled. She, her husband and her son, Chris, also were tested. "When you have a sibling donor, the survival rate increases. We knew if one of us was not a match, we didn't know how long it would take."

Jenna's transplant took place Aug. 29.

"It was flawless," Deana McMillin said. She added doctors were amazed at how quickly their patient recovered.

After living at the hospital in an airlocked room, McMillin and her daughter moved to the nearby Ronald McDonald house, where they lived for three months. Jenna's immune system had been destroyed by the high doses of chemo, so she stayed in isolation until it could be built back up.

Once Jenna was strong enough, Deana McMillin began tutoring her. A bright girl who loves school, she was able to keep up with her classmates thanks to teacher Wilbur Bolton and school secretary Brenda Hamilton, who photocopied, faxed and mailed lessons and other materials to St. Louis.

Once Jenna was able to receive visitors at home, Tamalunis began tutoring her five hours a week. The two sat at the dining room table and read books, solved multiplication and division problems, even conducted science experiments using items Jenna found around the house.

"I really wouldn't have done it unless it was Jenna," said the teacher, who was swamped with work, graduate school classes and her son's high school basketball games. "I was her kindergarten teacher ... and she's just a special little girl.You just want to give back to someone who brightens up your day."

Doctors originally thought Jenna would not be healthy enough to return to school until after spring break. But after a doctor's appointment on Monday, they gave their OK.

"She couldn't wait to be back with her friends," her mother said, adding her daughter had already packed her art supplies and pencil box in her pink backpack the day before.

One of the first people to greet her on Tuesday was Margaret Houpt, her teacher for first and second grades.

"She looks wonderful," Houpt said of Jenna, whose dark, curly hair is now short.

"I'm glad she's back," said classmate MacKenzie King, who sat by Jenna at lunch. "Now I can talk to her, and we can work together."

Deana McMillin said her family is so grateful for the outpouring of support they have received since Jenna was first diagnosed. When she relapsed last year, classmates made a videotape and book for her, and students across the school district sent e-mails and raised money through Jeans for Jenna days to help with medical expenses.

"That really meant so much," she said, adding the effort yielded several thousand dollars. "This whole thing has been such a journey, and we've met so many giving, caring people in this community."

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