Five-year-old Justin Isom is home.
Four months and 15 days after a last-chance bone marrow transplant using blood from the umbilical cord of his baby sister KayDee, the Blackfoot boy is again sharing a bunk bed with two older brothers, arguing over toys and whining to his mother about itchy mosquito bites."Just like any other kid," said mom Jeanne Isom, shaking her head while making lasagne in the kitchen of the family's rural home.
Well, not exactly.
The 42-pound boy still has a mainline catheter in his chest. He gets several daily intravenous medications through it, in addition to taking about five sets of pills. He's been in a Pocatello hospital twice since returning from Primary Children's Medical Center in Utah May 28.
For most of this year, the boy has been a permanent resident at the hospital. Since then, he has spent 90 days living in near-isolation, waiting for KayDee's blood to work medical magic on his body.
It was three months of medical and emotional ups and downs for the Isom family. Jeanne and KayDee lived in Utah, making only short weekend trips home to Blackfoot.
Marc stayed at home with Zeph, 11, Angie, 10 and Kyle 7, managing the house, working at the local hospital and plowing through another semester of nursing school at Idaho State University. In most cases, when Jeanne came home, Marc hit the road for Utah to spend time with Justin.
Quietly, Justin fought off infection after infection. Fluids and medication added 10 pounds to his frame. He lost his blond wavy hair. For days sometimes, Justin felt so bad, he just wouldn't talk.
But by April 1, doctors let him leave the hospital. For about six weeks, Jeanne, Justin and KayDee lived in a Salt Lake apartment and made daily trips to the hospital for outpatient treatments. He lost the weight, and his hair grew back brown and soft and wavy.
"It was a lot harder than we thought it would be," said Jeanne of the time apart and of Justin's daily challenges. "But it's pretty neat being a part of so many miracles."
For most of his five years, Justin has suffered from an autoimmune disease called Evans syndrome, a condition in which the immune system works against itself, eating up the blood cells the body needs to ward off infection.
In Justin's case, his body was also unable to produce an adequate number of platelets, the cells that allow blood to clot.
He has spent most of the last four years in the hospital.
Doctors tried many treatments before deciding a year ago that a marrow transplant was the only option. A donor search proved fruitless, but last fall, when Justin's condition worsened, doctors tested a pregnant Jeanne and learned baby KayDee was a perfect match. She was born in December.
Although doctors say it will be at least a year before they know if Justin will be cured and live a normal life, they are optimistic. His body is now producing its own red and white blood cells and some platelets.
Justin goes back to Salt Lake City twice a month for check-ups and continues to get care at home from Gary Pollan and nurse Ra-Kay Dance of Prescription Center in Idaho Falls. Jeanne also relies heavily on Dr. Creighton Hardin at Bannock Regional Medical Center in Pocatello.
"The time and energy they put into his care is something. They're really wonderful," Jeanne said.
Being home may turn out to be the best medicine of all.
Jeanne likes sleeping in her own bed, making dinner for the family and just being home when her kids get out of school. She's been working in the garden and taking morning walks.
She seems to love the chaos of family life. As Jeanne makes dinner, kids run back and forth to get snacks from the refrigerator, teasing and squabbling with each other.
KayDee rocks in a baby swing. Justin sits on the counter, helping with dinner by carefully placing strips of pasta in the lasagne pan. Zeph sits quietly on the couch, starting his own recovery after breaking his shoulder playing basketball recently.
"It's a different kind of chaos, but it's a good kind," Jeanne said.
When Justin manages to slip out of the house alone, Jeanne said she often finds him rummaging around the garden playing in the dirt. It's not a therapy doctors would recommend for a boy whose immune system is still fragile. But it seems to do him good.
Justin smiles and nods his head vigorously when asked if he likes it better here than at the hospital. He shouted "good-bye, I hate you," over his shoulder the first time they drove away from Primary Children's, Jeanne said.
His siblings prefer it this way, too.
"It's just great being together as a family again," said Zeph.