« Caitlyn Jackson: Leaving A Legacy of Courage & Perseverence »

by Tom Rademacher, Veteran Grand Rapids Press columnist and long-time Michigan Blood donor

Melinda Jackson remembers those numbers as though it were yesterday. It’s the blood pressure count that the machine blinked out to her and other members of her family as their beloved “Caity Bug” fought for her life during a time when she should have been enjoying all the bittersweet gifts that accompany becoming a teen-ager.

Caitlyn Jackson died seven months before what would have been her 13th birthday, but during the time she struggled to survive, she taught us all what it is to persevere with courage and dignity.

In the process, she also reminded us all of the life-sustaining qualities of blood products that prolonged her days on this earth and allowed her to spend more and more time with her friends and family.

“Over the course of four and a half years, I can’t even begin to count the number of blood products she used,” says mother Melinda, 49. “I think pretty much if there was a blood product to be had, Caitlyn had them – blood, plasma, red cells, and platelets. “During stretches when she was especially sick, she was getting blood products every day. It was unreal.”

Caitlyn was born in June of 2001, just minutes after the birth of her twin brother Christopher, now 13. The family – which would eventually number seven in all – lived then in North Carolina. They moved to Michigan in 2001, seeking a job for father Jeff, 51.

His position was eliminated eight years later, just before Christmas of 2009.

Just two months later, Caitlyn was diagnosed with a serious form of leukemia that would eventually claim her.

And three months after that, her father was told he had multiple sclerosis.

It’s been an uphill climb ever since for both parents, as well as surviving siblings John, 28,
Nicholas, 25, Christopher, 13, and Makenna, 12, all of whom share the same rented home in Battle Creek. Jeff is now on full disability and unable to work. The older boys hold down jobs, along with Melinda, who works about 20 hours weekly in daycare, dedicating the rest of her week as caregiver to her husband.

They take solace in a little garden out front, planted in Caity Bug’s memory, a plot of what each spring will emerge as orange and gold flowers flanking ornamental ladybugs and butterflies, along with a plaque bearing Caitlin’s name.


It will remind them of the little girl who at the age of just 8 came down with a series of afflictions that included bronchitis, ear infections, dehydration and fatigue.

After weeks of fighting the symptoms with antibiotics, a blood test finally determined the culprit to be Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, or ALL, which is a type of cancer in blood and bone marrow caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells that render the body largely unable to fight off infection.

Caitlyn’s condition was complicated by the presence of two other disorders which made her ordeal and treatment complicated and painful.

“She was in the hospital more times than we could count,” says Melinda. “She spent Easter of 2010 and Easter of 2011 there. At one point, she stayed 21 days at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

“She missed the last three and a half months of second grade and all of third grade. She was able to go back to fourth grade some, but she was out a lot.”

And then came a breakthrough.


After fighting through all the pain and suffering to somehow finish fifth grade, Caitlyn enjoyed an entire year without symptoms. “She was riding her bike out with her friends, even worked as a soda girl for the Battle Creek Bombers” collegiate summer baseball team,” says Melinda. “With every week and month that passed we breathed a little easier.”

In July 2013, though, blood work confirmed the worst; Caitlyn’s leukemia had returned.

Caitlyn cried, burying her head in the comfort of her cocker spaniel Molly. But just as quickly, she rebounded, using her Instagram account to reach out to friends with words Melinda recalls as “Today I went and had my blood drawn and found out the cancer is back. Please pray for me. She took it all in stride, and she felt like she could fight it off again. She didn’t let anything get her down or stop her.”

But the symptoms worsened. She contracted drug-induced diabetes, then kidney stones. She underwent intensive chemotherapy, and finally, received a bone marrow transplant from her own brother, Nicholas.

In early November of 2013, her condition turned grave. Caitlyn’s kidneys shut down, and she was put on a ventilator. There was internal bleeding. And finally, word from her medical team that “no matter how much they did or we did or how much we prayed, her body was too worn out to survive,” remembers Melinda.

She died on a Saturday evening, surrounded by friends and family, some of whom drove from as far away as Tennessee to say goodbye.

Looking back, Melinda says the entire family cherishes the untold number of people who donated blood and blood products to keep their precious Caity Bug alive as long as was possible.

“I had never donated blood until Caitlyn was diagnosed,” says Melinda. “You hear about blood drives all the time, but if you’re not involved with someone receiving blood, you don’t think of it as important. We do now.”

In the moments before Caitlyn’s passing, nurses encouraged Melinda to cradle her daughter one more time, knowing that throughout Caitlyn’s ordeal, the two often slept together at the family home.

“So I got into the hospital bed with her,” said Melinda. “And when she passed away, I was holding her. And I think about her every day.”