Life-giving childhood shapes career — Marrow donor at age 5 to baby sister now cares for tiny patients

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 22, 2013.

Little Krista Escalambre made headlines in 1983 with her gift of bone marrow to baby Rachel. (Photo courtesy of Krista Sutton)
Little Krista Escalambre made headlines in 1983 with her gift of bone marrow to baby Rachel. (Photo courtesy of Krista Sutton)

Nearly 30 years ago, 5-year-old Krista Escalambre lay alone on an operating table in Minneapolis, about to undergo a surgery she didn’t need. It was a bone marrow extraction – rare at the time – that would enable her to give a precious gift to her 2-year-old sister, Rachel.

Rachel had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer affecting her nervous system that, in 1983, claimed the lives of 90 percent of its victims.

As doctors prepared to extract marrow from Krista’s pelvic bone, her parents, Pat and Rick Escalambre, were at Rachel’s side in another hospital room at the University of Minnesota, hundreds of miles from their Concord home, where Rick owned an auto repair shop named K&R after their two daughters.

In the Bay Area, and around the country, there were thousands who had opened their hearts and wallets to donate the $250,000 that made Rachel’s bone marrow transplant possible after her insurance company refused to pay for a treatment because it was “experimental.” Even President Ronald Reagan stood by for word of how the procedure went. He had invited the Escalambres to the White House after receiving hundreds of letters about their plight, and the family made the trip before Rachel’s transplant.

Thousands of people, thousands of dollars, thousands of hopes, and one 5-year-old girl.

Neither Pat nor Rick was a match for Rachel’s bone marrow. When doctors discovered that Krista was, they told the Escalambres, “You can’t give her a choice.” But Pat and Rick strongly felt that the painful and invasive bone marrow tests – which, at the time, did not involve anesthesia – must be Krista’s choice.

“She said, ‘I’ll do whatever I need to do,’ ” Pat recalled.

Krista’s gift gave Rachel an extra year of life, and when her cancer returned and defied treatments in May 1984, more than 400 people – including cameras and news reporters – packed her funeral.

Deciding to go back

Krista Sutton uses a lighthearted touch in caring for Nevaeh Fletcher, 5, at Children's Hospital Oakland. (Photo: Alex Washburn/ Special to the Chronicle)
Krista Sutton uses a lighthearted touch in caring for Nevaeh Fletcher, 5, at Children’s Hospital Oakland. (Photo: Alex Washburn/ Special to the Chronicle)

When it was all over, Krista decided she’d had enough of hospitals and never wanted to go back. But 30 years later, she is back. Back doing a job she loves: pediatric nursing at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, a nonprofit hospital that never turns families away due to inability to pay. She treats “immunocompromised” children, including those like her sister whose immune systems are depleted by cancer treatments.

 Krista Sutton uses a lighthearted touch in caring for Nevaeh Fletcher, 5, at Children’s Hospital Oakland.

Now 35, Krista, who uses her married name of Sutton, works night shifts, wearing a Lego flashlight around her neck so she can be “a ninja” at changing IV tubes while young patients sleep. They have no idea that this nurse got her start by calming her sister’s fears and helping her give shots to their doll, Baby Linda. They don’t know that at age 5, she took phone messages for her parents and burned the toast making her own breakfast and missed school to accompany her family to Minnesota for Rachel’s transplant.

And the reporters who followed her family for a year, some became so like family that they came to Sutton’s wedding years later. Sutton’s story, so well known around the country decades ago, is unknown to patients and parents in her hospital unit because she never tells them. “I don’t ever want families to feel like they have to be worried about how I’m doing,” Sutton said, “It’s about them. I hope the way I act as a nurse shows them I sympathize with what they’re going through.”

Sutton said nursing is the best way she can think of to honor her sister’s memory – although she didn’t always feel that way. In high school, her passion was the stage, but after graduation, she realized acting didn’t pay the bills, so she unhappily worked as a receptionist and a waitress while looking for a better calling. A friend was a nurse, and Sutton remembers thinking, “I bet that’s something I could do.”

 In a childhood photo, Krista Escalambre plays nurse with dad Rick Escalambre and sister Rachel. (Photo courtesy of Krista Sutton)

In a childhood photo, Krista Escalambre plays nurse with dad Rick Escalambre and sister Rachel. (Photo courtesy of Krista Sutton)

Wanting to test her resolve at being back in a medical setting, Sutton first became a phlebotomist, drawing kids’ blood. It was a job her mother had done after Rachel died but soon quit, because it brought back too many painful memories. Sutton was a little surprised to find she “could handle it.” What’s more, “I liked it, and I was good at it.”

Long commute

Sutton’s father, Rick, said his daughter’s career shift “came clear out of the blue sky.” Sutton “never even played a nurse in the theater,” her mother, Pat said, adding that she was cautiously optimistic about the idea of a career in nursing for her daughter. “My advice to her was ‘Check yourself and be careful. You don’t want to get yourself into a career you can’t handle, like me.’ ”

At age 29, Sutton was accepted to nursing school. Shortly after graduation, she and her husband, Mark Sutton, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, bought a house five minutes away from the Concord home she grew up in, where her parents still live. But to take a job that would let her work with children, Sutton had to commute two hours from the East Bay to UC Davis Medical Center. It’s a commute she made one to three times a week for two years.

In a childhood photo, Krista Escalambre plays nurse with dad Rick Escalambre and sister Rachel.

Sutton gave birth to a healthy son, Aidan, in 2010 and was anxious to get a job closer to home. In February 2011, she got a dream job – working in the blood and bone marrow transplant unit of Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where 70 percent of the patients are on Medi-Cal and “everyone gets treated the same” regardless of the ability to pay. Despite having to work night shifts, Sutton jumped at the chance to work with two to three families in the transplant unit each night. She often sees parents taking turns sleeping by their sick child’s bedside while the other parent is home with a sibling.

“That was my family,” she says.

At Children’s Hospital, one recent winter night around 11:30, Sutton quietly entered the room of 5-year-old Nevaeh Fletcher. (Nevaeh is “heaven” spelled backward.) Like Rachel, she’d been diagnosed with neuroblastoma and was in the hospital recovering from a bone marrow transplant. Nevaeh’s mom drowsily raised her head from the nearby couch, but the little girl was wide awake, wearing rubber medical gloves several sizes too big and waiting for Sutton. Sutton cooed over Nevaeh’s puppy toy and princess blanket as she deftly took her vitals and prepared an injection. “I’ll push it in,” Nevaeh said, pointing to the syringe. “I have gloves on.” Sutton acquiesced, helping the little hand smoothly guide the plunger in with the patience of someone who’d done this before. “A little birdie told me you have to go to sleep,” she whispered to Nevaeh. “You know how to push the button if you need me.”

“She’s the one who reminds me the most of my sister,” Sutton said, stepping outside Nevaeh’s room. “She’s little, with a little voice and a big grin.”

Remembering birthday

Sutton’s family survived their tragedy together. Pat, 64, and Rick, 62, celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary this year, and they both said they look back on Rachel’s life with no regrets. In the years immediately after her death, they visited the cemetery every Sunday and celebrated Rachel’s birthday with a cake. They marked the anniversary of her death taking hot air balloon rides – something Rachel had wanted to do.

Today, Sutton says, they mark the milestones more quietly, sometimes with a phone call. Sutton’s son likes to play with Rachel’s old wind chimes, which still hang in Pat and Rick’s backyard. “He knows those were Auntie Rachel’s,” Pat says. Sutton and her family make sure of that.

Information and donations

National Marrow Donor Program, 3001 Broadway N.E., Suite 100, Minneapolis, MN 55413. www.marrow.org, (800) 627-7692. To donate to Children’s Hospital in Oakland or Children’s Hospital & Research Center Foundation, 2201 Broadway, Suite 600, Oakland, CA 94612. www.childrenshospitaloakland.org.