Profiles in Leadership
Cincinnati Children’s senior leaders have committed their lives to help improve health outcomes for children. They are dedicated, passionate, and often have remarkable journeys. We know their names, but who are they really? What has inspired them? What do they hope to inspire in others? As we begin a new year, we also begin a new series of profiles on Cincinnati Children’s senior leaders.
Stella M. Davies, MBBS, PhD, MRCP
Connected to Children and Committed to Saving Lives
After spending five minutes with Stella Davies, it’s clear that any story on her needs to start with the patients and families she’s helped over the years. The director of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immune Deficiency points to photos that line the walls outside her office on the 12th floor of Location T. There are a dozen or more pictures of children, all of whom have undergone life-saving treatment. Davies knows each child by name and their story—the rare disease they suffered and the critical care they received. Each patient, each family is personal to her. The photo gallery has become something for which Davies is well known.
There is 5-year-old Will Jenkins, who came to Cincinnati Children’s in 2009 from Atlanta for a 3-day consult. Will had already been diagnosed with a rare and extremely aggressive form of lymphoma. Even more devastating was a secondary diagnosis of a rare genetic disorder called XLP that affects male children. After testing Will’s brothers John and Matthew, they were also diagnosed with the disorder. All three would need bone marrow transplants to have a chance at surviving. Fortunately, two of the boys were a match with their sister Julia, and Will matched with a complete stranger. Today all three boys are thriving. Mom, Christy Jenkins, says, “They’re typical teenagers who play basketball, work, and live life to the fullest.”
Christy credits Davies and her staff that her boys are alive and doing well:
“Dr. Davies has a passion to care for, treat and heal rare, difficult cases. In her mission of treatment, she doesn’t just see the diagnosis and treat it; she acknowledges and engages the whole child. Her heart for her patients is evident to the whole family. Her expertise and willingness to leave no stone unturned give families the strength to walk a very long, challenging road back to health. Some families don’t get the opportunity to fight. My boys were blessed to have an entire medical team fighting for them and giving all they had to give. The outcome was the gift of restored health.”
Then there is Kira Palermo, one of triplets. She had a stroke when she was 10 months old, due to a condition called Medich giant platelet syndrome, which causes abnormal bleeding. She also had a bleed in her lungs. Treatment required a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately, one of her sisters was a match. Two months afterward, Kira developed a horrible viral infection. Davies thought she wasn’t going to make it. This time, the third sister was able to provide cells for another life-saving procedure. Today Kira is 10 and doing well.
Says Kira’s dad, Dan Palermo:
“During the transplant, my wife, Kari, was the main care provider for Kira while I was back home with her sisters. When my wife came down with a brief illness. Dr. Davies insisted that she go back to her room at the Ronald McDonald House and arranged for someone to be with Kira in the Bone Marrow Transplant unit. It’s these types of things that stand out.
“Since the transplant, we schedule visits with Dr. Davies and the transplant team to monitor Kira’s recovery and growth. During our meetings, it’s as if we are having a family reunion. Dr. Davies takes her time to discuss any new issues or concerns we have.”
There are countless more photos and stories of survival with Davies and her staff providing the life-saving treatment.
“They (the photos) remind you who you work for,” says Davies. “In some cases, our nurses have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and I want the team to remember it. I want every mother who comes to the floor to see a kid that’s had the same or similar diagnosis as their child.”
And it has worked. Nurses say the mothers walk around at night and look at the photos. Says Davies, “We’ve got children getting back to normal life, and it’s important for parents to see the success we’ve had. It gives them hope.”
One patient’s picture is not on the wall, but Davies will never forget.
“About 30 years ago, I was a junior doctor in England. I was just starting out and didn’t know anything,” she explains. “A little girl came in, who was about 10. Her name was Helen. She had a high white count, and we diagnosed her with leukemia. I thought, ‘We have treatment for this, and we’ll probably be able to cure it.’
Helen was a little girl like me. She was a front-of-the-class girl. We would hang out and do her homework together. Then a month into the treatment, the physician in charge came to me and gave me a piece of paper and said, ‘Look at this.’ It said that her leukemia had a Philadelphia chromosome. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. He said, ‘It means she is going to die and that this is a kind of leukemia that isn’t curable.’ I asked, ‘What is going to happen?’ He said, ‘She will go into remission, and in a few months, it will come back, and then she’ll transition.’ And that is exactly what happened. You spend a lot of time with these kids and the families, and it hurts.”
Over the years, there have been other children like Helen, who succumbed to their illness. But Davies keeps fighting for patients and families.
“This profession is hard, but it’s always meaningful,” she says. “We have a moral duty to get better, and the way we get better is research—it’s what makes a difficult clinical task tolerable. We’re not going to cure every child, but we will cure more children. Most of our patients participate in research studies with the same feeling in mind. They want to help the people that come after them—the parents and the children. Even little children want to help the next kid.”
The research has paid off. Children with Philadelphia chromosome leukemia have gone from 0 to a better than 80-percent chance of cure, Davies says. But that’s not all.
In the last 5 years, researchers have developed new molecules to help fight cancer.
Says Davies, “These molecules specifically target the cancer cells and kill them without completely blowing everything up. This means fewer side effects and less time in the hospital. We’re even learning how to teach cells to fight cancer infections. It’s cure at less cost, and by cost, I don’t mean money. I mean cost to the child.”
When Davies first started in 1981, chemotherapy had just been introduced. She is encouraged and inspired by the discovery of new treatment options.
“When you care for children with cancer, you have to keep moving the needle forward because the current state of affairs is not acceptable,” she says. “That’s what I love about Cincinnati Children’s. The leadership is always about doing the right thing for kids and giving us the space to figure out how to do it. This is an extraordinary time, a magical time, and I love that we work together to make things better for patients and families.”
Kira Palermo (right) as a little girl smiles at the camera while playing with her sisters. (Below) Kira today.
Will, John and Matthew Jenkins with their sister, Julia.
Coming to America
As long as she’s been in the United States, Davies has kept her distinct British accent and way of speaking. It’s part of her charm. Here she tells how she ended up in Cincinnati—a long way from her hometown of Liverpool, England.
“I did my MD and PhD in England. My boss at the time said, ‘Now you need your BTA, Been to America.’ He said, ‘It’s what you need to progress in the British system.’
“I didn’t really want to go. I was scared, I was a single woman, I’d never been to America. I thought I’d get shot as soon as I arrive because I’d watched the TV show Miami Vice.”
In 1989, Davies was selected for a 1-year fellowship from the Medical Research Council in England to go to Minnesota for a year. “The last thing my mother said to me was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get married. You’ll never come back.’ The first thing I did was marry somebody, and I never came back.”
That someone was John Perentesis, MD, head of Oncology at Cincinnati Children’s. The two have been married for 31 years.
“I met him 3 weeks after arriving in Minnesota, which was fortunate because I was only there for a year, and if it had been later, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to accept his proposal and give up my life in England. I had a job and a house and everything to go back to. We decided to get engaged 4 months later. The hardest thing was telling the Medical Research Council. They had spent all this money to send me to Minnesota. So, I called and told them I was getting married, and there was a silence on the other end—and the man I was speaking to said, ‘Well, I do hope he’s a nice gentleman.’ I thought they might ask for their money back, but they never did.”
The two spent 13 years in Minnesota. Then, in 2002, the opportunity arose to come to Cincinnati Children’s, and they couldn’t turn it down.
Who Is Stella Davies?
Director, Division of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immune Deficiency; Co-Executive Director, Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute; Jacob G. Schmidlapp Endowed Chair
As a doctor specializing in bone marrow transplantation, I enjoy forming long-term relationships with patients and their families and traveling with them on their journey.
- Everyone’s path is different, and our team of doctors and nurses is committed to exceptional care. We deliver personalized treatments to each child and adolescent—one size fits no one!
- I am honored to be president-elect of the American Society of Transplantation and Cellular Therapy, the professional society for bone marrow transplant specialists.
- In my research, my colleagues and I focus on finding out what causes complications after bone marrow transplantation and determining better ways to fix these complications.
- In my spare time, I enjoy supporting my daughter, a Cincinnati Rollergirl, at roller derby bouts.
Professor, UC Department of Pediatrics
Bone Marrow Transplantation BMT, Fanconi Anemia, Leukemia, Sarcoma, Cancer and Blood Diseases
Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immune Deficiency, Cancer and Blood Diseases
MBBS: University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, 1981. Clinical and Fellowship Training: The Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle General Hospital and Great Ormond St. Hospital, 1981 to 1985. PhD: University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, 1989. Pediatric Fellowship: University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 1989 to 1993.