Toddler battling rare cancer seeks bone marrow donor

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Two-year-old Ihanu Merrill loves his family, Toy Story, and adventures on the playground. But he’s also fighting for his life, battling a rare type of leukemia, without a registered match in the world to save him.

After several tests, Merrill was diagnosed with Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML) on Feb. 14, just over two months before his second birthday.

“It is a rare form of leukemia that affects children under the age of four,” Merrill’s mother, Isla Moore, says. “It’s so rare that places like St. Jude’s, they don’t have a trial for it. It’s one of those things where he had to go through all this genetic testing just to find out what it was.”

Courtesy: HERO HANU

Moore says it all started in January of 2020. Merrill’s gums were bleeding, and his mom knew something wasn’t right.

“I took him to his dentist for that, and she prescribed some antibiotics and we went on about our business,” Moore said. “Further on down the line, we ended up having to go to the emergency room because blood work was done at his pediatrician’s office and it came back where the numbers were off.”

Merrill has been undergoing chemotherapy at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Massey Cancer Center since February, but Moore says they’re now at the point where that kind of treatment will no longer be effective.

“He’s at VCU now, getting his last dose of the chemo, so we’re basically at the eleventh hour right now,” Moore said. “The only way to cure it, usually, is a bone marrow transplant.”

But Merrill is Moore’s only son, making it difficult to find a perfect match for a transplant.

“He has a half match in his father, but he doesn’t have a full match,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of complications that could come with having a half match, so that’s where the issue really lies.”

A search of the global database turned up empty. That’s why Moore is partnering with Mason’s Toy Box to hold a bone marrow drive, in the hopes that someone not currently registered will turn out to be a match for Merrill.

The drive is being held Thursday, Oct. 22 from 3 to 7 p.m. at 11861 W. Broad Street in Richmond, across from Short Pump Mall. Saliva swabs will be collected in a drive-thru car parade to maintain social distancing and minimize COVID-19 risks.

“We want to make sure that everybody walks away with this feeling like they could have possibly accomplished something. Well, they would have accomplished something just by being there,” Moore said, “but walk away with that and then also feeling like they did it in a safe way.”

Finding a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant is even more difficult for Merrill because of his heritage, his mother says.

Courtesy: HERO HANU

“His father is Native American and French, and they’re from up north, they’re from the Boston area, so there may be other things there. My heritage, as far as we know, is African American, Italian, and also Native American, possibly Cherokee,” Moore said. “If you’re a person of color, it is really a much harder road to find a match.”

But Moore is determined to find a match for her son, who will turn three in March.

“He is beautiful. I know every mother says that but he’s beautiful, trust me. But he is really, really smart, he’s funny,” Moore said. “His name means ‘he who laughs,’ his first name, and his middle name means ‘he who inspires all,’ and he is the perfect combination of that, to me.”

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