Sickle cell disease might have killed Isaac Coutté, but his family brought him from Panama to Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, where a cord blood and bone marrow transplant gave him a new life.
In 2005, Isaac received cord blood and bone marrow transplants from his sister, Eunice, far left, when she was 2. Between them sits their mother, Edna.
Isaac Coutté’s family gave up nearly everything, including their home in Panama, to help him survive sickle cell disease.
In March 2006 Isaac and his family celebrated his ninth birthday in Brentwood, Calif.
Isaac’s sickle cell disease was discovered when he was 10 months old. Back then the family lived in Panama City, capital of Panama, a Central American country straddling the equator. “That’s when our nightmare began,” said Isaac’s father, Andres.
The Coutté family had a good life there, but the country’s healthcare system had little to offer children with sickle cell. It’s a rare disease in Panama.
Sickle cell is an inherited blood disorder affecting the red blood cells. The disease causes red blood cells to become sickle shaped. The malformed cells can clog small blood vessels, blocking blood flow to parts of the body and leading to tissue damage.
The spleen, an organ involved in blood cell formation, is frequently affected by sickle cell. And when Isaac was about 1, doctors in Panama removed his damaged spleen. It’s not an uncommon operation for sickle cell kids.
Isaac survived, but his parents worried about what they could do to continue keeping him alive. They had spent their savings on the surgery and on private hospital care.
Leaving Panama for the United States
Relatives living in the United States recommended the Coutté family go to Atlanta, New York or Oakland, Calif., for better sickle cell care. In 2000 they chose Oakland.
That’s when they left behind their affluent life in Panama. “We moved for my son,” said Andres.
Andres gave up his good-paying job as international sales manager for a sports shoe distributor. Isaac’s mother, Edna, left her job as an executive secretary at a company managing a local racetrack. Isaac’s big brother Augustine left behind his school and friends.
After the family had settled in the States, Isaac’s little sister, Eunice, was born. She was not quite 2 when she too gave something to her older brother — umbilical cord blood, stored since her birth, and bone marrow.
Cord blood contains stem cells that, under the right conditions, are able to produce blood-manufacturing cells.
Isaac gets life-saving cord blood from his baby sister
Last year, clinicians at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland infused Isaac with cord blood collected immediately after Eunice’s birth. Clinicians had determined that her blood, and the stem cells it contained, would be a good match for Isaac. They hoped the transplant would modify Isaac’s blood-making machinery, allowing him to make normal, non-sickled red blood cells.
They also performed a bone marrow transplant, hoping the two procedures together could cure Isaac of his sickle cell disease.
In March 2006, Isaac turned 9, a testament to the power of Eunice’s gifts, Children’s Hospital medical care, the 18 pills Isaac takes every day, and his family’s love and faith.
Isaac's busy, active life
Now Isaac runs around the family’s two-story apartment. He gets home schooling from Brentwood teacher Lisa Sotelo, has friends among other Brentwood kids and makes it clear his favorite cowboy and actor is Owen Wilson, co-star of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. Wilson is the model for Isaac’s cowboy look this night.
Isaac is a dramatic boy, given to imitating bits from his favorite movies. He’s also a collector of Godzilla memorabilia and a prolific artist. His paintings are displayed all over the walls.
His older brother, Augustine, 14, is quieter. He wants to be a CPA when he grows up. But tonight he focused on trying to beat Isaac in a game of eight ball on the family’s miniature pool table.
Meanwhile, their little sister Eunice watched a DVD of Finding Nemo while their parents prepared a light supper of sausage and potato soup, cooked from scratch. They flavored the soup with fresh parsley and lots of ground Parmesan cheese, and served it with soda crackers.
Dinner-time thanks for blessings
As everyone sat down to share the soup, Isaac quieted down. He had put away his cap pistol, designed to look like a “pearl-handled” six-shooter, and removed his cowboy hat.
The family sat quietly while Andres took off his black baseball cap to say grace in Spanish. The cap is imprinted with the name of his new business, a house cleaning company that now supports the family’s new life in America: Isaac’s Cleaning Service.
Andres gave thanks for all their blessings, including the health of their birthday boy, Isaac. Outside rain fell and wind blew. “We didn’t have time for God, now we have time,” said Andres. “He made a favor for us.”
This story, written and photographed by senior writer Tom Levy, was first published in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of HandPrints magazine.