Sally-Ann Roberts / Eyewitness News
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SLIDELL, La. -- A Slidell teenager seemed perfectly healthy one day and the next she was hit with a mysterious illness.
Kathryn Gardner is so young to be in the fight of her life but she's not facing it alone as she will receive her sister's stem cells on May 5.
Kathryn Gardner is one in a million and usually that's a good thing, but in the case of this once healthy active child Kathryn is one in a million to be diagnosed with HLH. The first symptoms came on suddenly last December.
“I was in school and I could hardly breathe and I started getting headaches,” said Kathryn.
At first doctors thought it was the flu but ultimately 14-year-old Kathryn was diagnosed with HLH, a potentially fatal disease.
“It was a shock it…it brought us to our knees," described Kyle Gardner, Kathryn’s father.
"It's a very rare auto-immune disease. It's normally not diagnosed until autopsy and most people once they are diagnosed have about a two month life span because it's just not treated because they don't know what it is," explained Kathryn’s mother Kathy.
But fortunately Kathryn was accurately diagnosed early enough to begin chemotherapy. Her doctor at Tulane Hospital told the Gardners a bone marrow transplant is Kathryn's best hope for beating the disease.
"And he said okay now tell me about your family...does she have any siblings and we said oh yeah she's got siblings," said Kathy.
That’s where the odds were in Kathryn's favor. She has four sisters ranging in age from 5 to 25.
”We had all the girls tested to see who would be a match and me and Kathryn…we were matches...Laughter and Karlie were matches, and Karlie was THE match, the five-year-old,” said Kathy.
When asked what Kathryn thought when she found out her sister Karlie was a perfect match, she said, “I was shocked cause I mean Karlie is the youngest and we don't really have a lot of things in common.”
It turns out Karlie and Kathryn have a lot in common because genetic testing showed they match in every single category.
“I think that I am going to help her very well. And I'm going to try to help her very very good so that she can go to her friends more faster and have some more fun faster,” said young Karlie.
“We told her that she would be able to help Kathryn, that her blood is healthy, that Kathryn's is not. She's just going to give some of her blood to Kathryn to help her get better,” explained Kathy.
Kathryn and her family have been embraced by the community with cards and prayers. The family's good friends Armando and Carol Ruiz have organized fundraisers to help the Gardner's medical expenses.
A dinner featuring comedian Mike Strecker will be held at St. Margarget Mary Church in Slidell this Friday and Saturday night.
But Kathryn won't be there. She will begin undergoing extreme chemo in the Tulane bone marrow unit to prepare for her Karlie's cells. Kathryn has a long and difficult road ahead.
“She's my hero. How she's gone through the ups and downs. The tests, the poking, the prodding, the cutting. She's handled it with grace,” said Kyle.
And 5-year-old Karlie is also a hero.
“When we go to the doctor and they have to draw blood, she asked me if it is going to hurt and it said it's going to feel like a pinch so we call them pinches so she's been very brave. And what's brave do you remember?” asked Kathy. “Um you were scared but you did it anyway,” answered Karlie. “That's right, so brave doesn't mean you aren't scared brave doesn't mean you won't cry, brave means you're scared but you did it anyway,” said Kathy.
You can follow Kathryn's progress and offer support by going click here.
The dinner benefit for Kathryn featuring comedian Mike Strecker is Friday and Saturday evening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Slidell.