Local Mom Donates Cells to Save Son From Cancer

A Glenview family fights through illness and comes out strong on the other side.

“When it comes to your child, you’ll do anything.” 

Those are the words of Jennifer Devine, who several years ago went through a scary and devastating experience and handled it with courage and incredible strength, not to mention a tremendous amount of dignity. In other words, she didn’t fall apart.

Devastating News

Almost three years ago, Jennifer and her husband Greg, who have four children, found out their 5 ½ year-old son Matthew (Matty) was diagnosed with a blood disorder combined with a chromosome abnormality. Doctors told them if left untreated, Matty’s condition would undoubtedly lead to the most aggressive form of leukemia, and that the only chance for a cure was a bone marrow transplant.

“Our world collapsed,” said 42 year-old Devine. “Matty was never sick. It was shocking. Everything fell apart and we had to re-group. Doctors told us it was like a time bomb and if it developed into leukemia, that was it.”

Things got worse. There were no matching donors in the National Bone Marrow Registry. Devine’s mother and sister even organized a donor drive in Glenview, where in two months they got 2000 people to register as donors. But still, no matches.

“The odds of finding a donor that way were so rare, but we felt like it was good karma and even if it didn’t help Matty, it would bring awareness and help someone else.”

“Jen had such determination and focus on saving Matty,” said Megan McCleary, who organized a second donor drive at her home and has been close friends with Devine for more than 20 years. “She had the ability to stay positive and to do all the right things for him.”

A Christmas Miracle

Good news came when an umbilical cord match was found. Doctors told them the success rate of a stem cell transplant was 90%. But then, another setback. They fell into the 10% failure statistic.

“I couldn’t believe we were back to the hopelessness feeling,” said Devine. She said seeing her son go through chemotherapy and radiation to prepare for the transplant, only to result in failure was brutally painful and almost unbearable.

The Devine’s had one option left, a half match transplant where Matty would receive cells from one of his parents. This meant more chemotherapy and radiation, and the grim statistic that the survival rate was 30%. Jennifer ended up being the donor parent. The transplant took place at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

 “When she gave her cells, we sat there and laughed with tubes in her and everything,” said Melissa Teuscher, Devine’s younger sister, “She was so strong and courageous and she did that for Matty.”

And then, a gift from God ironically given to the Devine’s on Christmas Eve; the news that Matty’s body had grafted, meaning it accepted the cells!

“It was so emotional,” said Devine, “Our goal was to get him off the table and it happened, even though it was a long road ahead.”

Matty had to stay in the hospital for four months and then had to be in isolation (due to his compromised immune system) and close to the facility for four more months. That meant Devine had to stay in an apartment there with him, leaving her husband and other three children back home.

Devine was the sole caregiver to her son during those months. She had to give him his medications, watch for infection, monitor his diet, and tend to him emotionally. She went back to see the rest of her family every 10 days for one night. Doctors recommended that the kids not see their brother to decrease the risk of infection.

“When you’re in something, you get strength you don’t know you have,” Devine said, “I would have done anything for him. I’d have traded places and been the sick one in a second.”

“She always found humor in things,” said Teuscher, “I kept thinking, ‘How can she be like this with the state she’s in?’ But that’s my sister.”

Turning Tragedy into Charity

During that time with her son, Devine was writing letters to him and posting them online. She said she wanted to update people, but she also did it for Matty and her other children, and for therapy for herself. Devine, who has always enjoyed writing fiction and non-fiction is currently working on a book about the whole experience that will include a lot of the letters.

“Matty was and continues to be an amazing person,” she said, “He wanted to play and do Lego’s, and when there were negatives, he dealt with them and got right back to the boy stuff.”

Three years later, the Devine family is thriving, growing and enjoying life being all together again. The six of them started Matthew’s Mission, an initiative where they collect new toys and donate them to the oncology floors at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. In the past year and a half, they’ve delivered 1000 toys to kids staying there.

“She’s one of the strongest people I know,” said McCleary, “She was inspirational and never waivered.”

“I love her. She’s the greatest,” added Teuscher, “As afraid as she was, she got through it with courage.”

To learn more about Matthew’s Mission contact sburlini@gmail.com

Keep an eye out for the next publication of "Glenview Girl," where Patch will introduce you to a woman who literally does it all! She's a mom, a fitness instructor, a reading specialist and a student at night. This Glenview Girl uses every hour of every day and still manages constant enthusiasm and spirit, not to mention a smile on her face! 

Editor's note: To read letters Jennifer wrote for Matthew, you can go to www.care pages.com and type MatthewDeVine into the search feature. You'll be prompted to make an account before you're granted access.

kathleen jeffery May 14, 2011 at 12:16 PM
What a story. So truly touching.
amy Kwi May 15, 2011 at 02:42 PM
Great article Jackie!!! I remember the first time I heard about Matty being sick. It just hit me and I was so emotional for Jennifer, Matty and their family. I dont know how she stayed so strong. She is TRUELY an amazing MOM, friend and individual!!!!


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