OC woman receives life-saving stem cell transplant from her sister after US gov't battle

DUARTE, Calif. (KABC) -- A stem cell transplant went on at City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, and it's something the Huynh family, of Garden Grove, have been fighting for.

"I'm just so overjoyed. I'm trying really hard to hold back my tears right now. We're really, really overjoyed. I can't believe this is happening," Yvonne Aivan Murray said.

For months, Yvonne watched her mother, Helen, slowly die. We first met the family in September, when they were in the ICU at UCI Medical Center.

Helen's daughters and husband stood by her bedside as she lay helpless and frustrated while battling cancer. But they were all even more frustrated at the U.S. government.

They knew their mother needed a stem cell transplant - it was her only hope. They even found a 100 percent match - Helen's own sister Thuy, who lives in Vietnam.

But the U.S. government would not give Thuy a visa to come save her sister because they didn't believe she would "depart the United States at the end of her temporary stay."

The Huynh's are American citizens even though Thuy is not. The City of Hope Hospital and UCI Medical Center even wrote letters on the family's behalf, pleading for an emergency visa for Thuy. But they were denied three separate times.

But after our story aired, Sen. Kamala Harris joined the fight. The story continued to spread, garnering national attention, including that of Rep. Alan Lowenthal, who at first said there was nothing he could do. He then joined the fight.

After that there was a breakthrough.

Two weeks after the first report aired, Thuy was granted permission to come to the states. Eyewitness News was there to capture her arrival at Los Angeles International Airport.

It was followed by the reunion of the sisters under the most incredible circumstances. Finally, after weeks of testing and preparing, the procedure took place this week.

The stem cells were taken out of Thuy and transferred into Helen.

"It looks very undramatic. It looks like a bag of blood hanging by the side of the bed, but in principle it's a very dramatic moment that every patient remembers for the rest of their life," Dr. Stephen Forman said. "Those cells will find their way into the bone marrow and reestablish the normal production of blood, white cells, platelets and a new immune system for that person, too."

In the middle of it all, there was a celebration. It's what City of Hope does for patients who get stem cell transplants. It's not Helen's birthday, but her rebirth. It's a second chance at life, and in Helen's case, her only chance.

"Without the transplant, her chances of survival were basically zero, which is why we worked so hard with everybody who was involved - family, government officials, the media - to try to get her sister here so that we could collect stem cells and give her the chance for cure," Forman said.

Yvonne said her mother has been fighting endlessly for this moment of hope.

"When you're fighting against time, when you're fighting cancer, it feels like forever. So she's very happy. She's very excited. Now it's really up to God," she said.

Helen's fight with the government may be over, but the fight for her life continues. With cancer, there are no guarantees.

She may not survive, but at least for now, thanks to a monumental effort and the seemingly impossible procedure, she has a chance.

Her sister, Thuy, will head back to Vietnam this weekend. It will take a few weeks to see if the stem cells do their job and restore Helen's health.
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