‘They saved his life that day.’ Mom grateful for nationally recognized cancer care team at MUSC children’s hospital

Melissa Varner
September 20, 2023
: A preteen boy gives a thumbs up while lying in a hospital bed with a golden doodle wearing a service vest.
Zach and hospital dog Agnes.

Zach Jefferies remembers finding little red bumps all over his feet after soccer practice one night. Concerned, his parents, Lisa and Jay, took him to an after-hours clinic in Mount Pleasant.

The doctor identified the bumps as petechiae (puh-TEE-kee-ee), tiny red or purple spots caused by bleeding under the skin. Because it can be a symptom of something more serious, the Jefferies were told to take Zach to the emergency department at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital and Pearl Tourville Women’s Pavilion.

From there, Lisa says everything happened quickly. By midnight, Zach had a diagnosis: T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). T-ALL is an aggressive blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow. By 3 a.m., Zach was in surgery to prepare his body to receive chemotherapy. “Within five hours of diagnosis, he had his first round of chemo,” Lisa said.

In November of 2020, Zach didn’t really know what leukemia was. That didn’t stop him from making a promise that gave his mom chills. “I have this 10-year-old not fully understanding the journey he’s about to go on, but he looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘I’m gonna beat this, Mom,’” she said.

Zach was in good hands at MUSC, where the children’s cancer program is nationally recognized for its outcomes and for its care team.

His mom says Zach went into remission within 24 days. But his journey was only just beginning. Treatment for leukemia typically lasts two to three years. Lisa says Zach would go through stints of being at MUSC for 20 days at a time.

Children with cancer often require longer or more frequent stays in the hospital. That’s why an entire floor at Shawn Jenkins is dedicated to the care of children with cancer and blood disorders. The top floor was chosen as the children’s cancer floor because it gives patients with the longest stays the best views of downtown Charleston, the harbor and surrounding tidal areas.

The 10th floor also offers three playrooms, including one designed specifically for teens. When he didn’t feel up to playing, a visit from Agnes, a golden doodle on the hospital dog team, would make Zach smile.

“They just kept finding ways to make those first few days easier,” Lisa said. The hospital dog program, like many of the programs and services that comfort and bring joy to children in the hospital, is made possible by donors.

Since November of 2020, Zach estimates he’s been through 120 chemo treatments. You think nothing could be worse than being told your child has cancer, Lisa said. “But when he had a bad reaction to the chemotherapy it was probably the worst 24 hours of my life.”

A preteen boy in a wheelchair fishes in a neighborhood pond. He is accompanied by an adult.  

She says Zach could not stand and was in a wheelchair for nine months. While his mom says he won’t be running down a soccer field anymore, Zach can walk again. Next month, he’ll turn 13. And on March 18, 2024, he plans to celebrate the end of treatment.

A preteen boy with brown hair sits on a hospital bed and gives a thumbs up. 

Lisa is grateful for Zach’s oncologist, Michelle Hudspeth, M.D., and his entire care team at Shawn Jenkins. “When I think about MUSC, my first thought is that without them, I probably wouldn’t have Zach,” Lisa said. “They saved his life that day.”

Zach agrees, adding “MUSC and me is just like family.”