MUNSTER — While visiting family in Arizona in 2008, 3-month-old Reese Erlain stopped eating. After rushing their baby to an emergency room, Kelly and Tony Erlain received devastating news — Reese had a rare form of infant leukemia that less than 50 percent of children survive.
On Saturday, a happy and healthy 9-year-old Reese, of Munster, will join hundreds of participants at the 9th annual CHICAGO Dance Marathon at the Marriott Chicago Hotel to benefit Lurie Children’s Hospital pediatric medical research efforts. Named one of this year’s “Patient Champions,” Reese will provide inspiration to help raise a goal of $500,000.
“We see it as a way to give back to the place that saved our daughter, for all they’ve given us,” said Kelly Erlain about the family’s participation in the fundraising effort.
“People raise money to come and dance all day,” she said. “Reese will be there to inspire the dancers to stay on their feet.”
CHICAGO Dance Marathon, presented by Solstice, will feature a Beach Bash theme, encouraging participants to Party with a Purpose by dressing up in their own flare with floral print shirts and hula skirts.
Since 2010, CHICAGO Dance Marathon has raised more than $2.5 million for the patients and families of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. For eight hours straight, hundreds of participants will hit the dance floor to boogie, enjoy entertainment and get inspired by Lurie Children’s patient families.
Reese’s journey to Saturday’s Dance Marathon began in the Arizona hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit after tests showed her liver and spleen were filled with leukemia. A medical flight transported the baby from Arizona to Children’s Memorial Hospital, now Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood.
Admitted to the oncology unit, Reese endured six months of chemotherapy. Because Reese’s type of leukemia had such a low survival rate, doctors decided stem cell transplant offered the best hope, her mother said.
“Most people think of stem cell transplants coming from bone marrow. But they also use cord blood for stem cells,” she said about the blood contained in a baby’s umbilical cord that is a rich source of stem cells.
Doctors at Lurie opted for cord blood as the source for the stem cells to treat Reese because it posed fewer risks, Kelly Erlain said. The initial search showed that there were multiple cord blood matches for Reese.
Reese received intense radiation treatment and high doses of chemotherapy to prepare her to receive the new stem cells. In May 2009 she was treated with stem cells from cord blood.
“It worked,” her mother recalled. “The new cells started reproducing. Reese was in the hospital over a month. We had to live a few blocks away.”
Kelly and Tony brought Reese home in August 2009. “She had just turned a year old,” Kelly said.
Now an energetic third-grader at Frank Hammond Elementary School in Munster, Reese loves to dance, to read and write. The park near the family’s Munster home provides the perfect place for Reese to play on the monkey bars and ride her bicycle. Recently Reese also learned how to ice skate.
“She considers herself an artist. She wants to become an author. Her favorite book right now is ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ ” Kelly said, adding that Reese’s artwork takes the form of comics created with markers.
The Erlain family has attended every CHICAGO Dance Marathon since 2014. In addition to Reese, Kelly and Tony, the family group will include daughters Evelyn, 7, and Harlow, 5.
“They have a lot of things for the kids — a bounce house, video games. My kids always find someone their own age to dance,” Kelly said.
“We try to teach them to give back.”