Melissa Belba is a healthy, bubbly, active 4-year-old girl. “She’s such a happy child, even though she’s been through so much,” says her mother, Erjona. “Every day, she says, ‘Good morning, Mommy – I love you.’” She also loves meeting new people, often announcing, “I got a new heart. You want to see my scar?”
Erjona and her husband found out about Melissa’s medical problems the day she was born, January 28, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida. Erjona had had a normal pregnancy and delivery, so they were shocked when Melissa was born with blue bruises all over her body and a fever of 104 degrees. Lab tests showed she had an extremely high white blood cell count. She was transferred to Wolfson Children’s Hospital for tests before they even had the chance to hold her.
A week later, Melissa was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). This type of leukemia starts from the myeloid cells that normally form white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets. She began undergoing chemotherapy the day she was diagnosed and stayed in the hospital to continue treatment. Erjona stayed with her, leaving behind her job and home to move into the hospital.
“Can you imagine what it is like to hear those words come out of the doctor’s mouth? As a mother, I was in shock, and I couldn’t stay calm” said Erjona. “I never knew a child could be born with cancer.”
Erjona says things were toughest in the beginning. Melissa’s doctors said they had never seen a case like hers before. She weighed so little they weren’t sure about the right dosage of the drugs she needed. And Erjona herself wasn’t coping well. Isolated in the hospital, she had a hard time talking about what was happening and kept her emotions mostly inside. Although the doctors told her otherwise, she blamed herself for Melissa’s illness. She began to find hope when she read a story online about a 30-year-old survivor who was also born with AML.
Things began to look up after Melissa’s very first chemotherapy treatment when she went into remission. Tests no longer detected any evidence of cancer in her body. She continued to receive chemotherapy, to reduce chances the cancer would come back. After 6 months, Erjona was finally able to take her home for the first time.
‘The Second-Worst News of our Lives’
About 2 months after she came home, Melissa began throwing up, not eating, and sleeping most of the time. Worried the leukemia had returned, the Belbas brought her to the emergency room, where they got what Erjona calls “the second worst news of our lives.” Melissa was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a serious heart problem caused by the chemotherapy that saved her life. She began receiving heart medication and responded well. Though she struggled to put on weight.
About 2 years later, Melissa’s symptoms suddenly returned. She began having ear infections, fever, coughing, and throwing up. Tests showed the drugs had stopped working and Melissa’s heart was failing. She was placed on the waiting list for a new heart and admitted to University of Florida Health Shands Hospital. Erjona moved into the hospital again.
“It was very scary,” said Erjona. “I didn’t know what to think. I felt hopeless – like she had not had one day of a normal life as a child.”
A New Heart
The Belbas were told to prepare to wait for as long as 1 year to find a donor heart for Melissa. But after just 2 months on the transplant list, they got what Erjona calls “the best news I have ever received in my whole life.” A donor was found who matched Melissa’s heart. She underwent transplant surgery on January 14, 2019. Her heart now works, Erjona says, “perfectly.”
Erjona says she is grateful to the parents of the child whose heart saved Melissa’s life. “I feel sad for them because they lost the most important thing in their life, but I’m glad they decided to save someone else’s child,” said Erjona. “I hope to meet them one day in person to thank them for giving my daughter a second chance in life.”
Melissa now runs, talks, and eats like any other 4-year-old. She also has a little brother to play with now. Erjona says she feels like she’s woken up from a bad dream. She says she hopes sharing Melissa’s story will help other parents who may be struggling alone or blaming themselves for their child’s illness. “God brought Melissa into this world for a reason,” said Erjona. “She’s doing great – she’s going to make it.”