Heartwarming

Kitty YouTube stars help girl with rare disease

20-year-old Hannah is in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant that her health insurance won’t cover, but some furry friends are lending a helping hand.

Actually, it’s more like a helping paw.

YouTube stars Cole and Marmalade are among the most popular cats on the social media network. Owners Chris Poole and Jessica Josephs have uploaded hundreds of videos to the channel, showing the frisky cats at play and at rest.

One popular video with over three million views shows what cats get up to after their owners go to sleep. Talk about “purranormal cativity” — the kitties cavort, howl, and generally go crazy in the dark apartment.

Other videos show Cole, a striking black cat, play aggressively with the more goofy-looking Marmalade. But when they’re not destroying toilet paper or sneaking into tight corners, they’re more than happy to cuddle together.

It’s not all cute cat videos — Poole and Josephs have also used the channel to call attention to other issues, such as foster cats and proper cat care. Poole has said that he was inspired to start making videos of Cole after hearing that black cats are frequently abandoned or euthanized, as many people still believe that black cats are bad luck or unattractive.

The couple had their own health scare after ginger kitty Marmalade, just a few years old, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. He also tested positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). However, after undergoing surgery and dozens of chemotherapy treatments, the feisty cat was soon cancer free. In another positive turn of events, Marmalade’s companion Cole was found to be FIV negative, even though the two had lived together for years and the virus can be quite contagious.

Now, Cole, Marmalade, and their owners are pitching in to help one of their biggest fans, Hannah Kiresuk, as they explain in a recently released video below.

A rare disease

A resident of Roseville, Minnesota, Hannah has been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, juvenile myasthenia gravis, known as MG. Only about three people for every three million are diagnosed with this condition every year.

The illness is most common in females, and causes increased muscle weakness, eventually making it nearly impossible for the muscles to contract. It also makes the immune system attack itself. At the beginning, the muscles around the eyes are the most affected, but gradually, other muscles — including those that help with breathing, talking, swallowing and digestion — are affected as well.

Hannah was first diagnosed when she was 16. Initially, the illness only affected her eyes, but as the sickness progressed she stopped responding to many treatments. Typically, those suffering from MG have their thymus gland removed — this is an organ located in the chest, which produces a type of white blood cell for the immune system.

Hannah had her thymus gland removed during a complicated surgery in 2014. According to Hannah’s personal Facebook page, Hannah’s doctor told her that this was one of the most difficult surgeries that she had ever done. Usually, removing the thymus is thought to reduce MG symptoms in many people. However, it did not work for Hannah, and the treatment was declared a failure.

Some patients with MG go on to lead long, normal lives. However, other sufferers may become so weak that they experience respiratory failure.

Hannah already experienced respiratory problems in 2014, after she caught a common cold during the summer. She was rushed to the hospital and had to undergo a tracheotomy in order to breathe.

Now, Hannah’s doctors recommend that she undergo an experimental bone marrow transplant, but her insurance won’t cover it. That means the Kiresuk family will have to pay about $500,000 out of pocket for the procedure.

The Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) is helping out with a campaign to raise funds for the Kiresuks, as Hannah herself explains in the video below.

So far, this campaign has raised over $9,000, meaning there’s still a ways to go. As Hannah writes on her COTA fundraising page, what scares her the most is that she could experience respiratory arrest again, simply by catching a cold.

“I often wonder what if we made it to the Emergency Room five minutes later?” she writes.

Treatment

At the moment, Hannah depends on something called plasmapheresis in order to survive. This involves getting hooked up to a machine and having her plasma removed — plasma being the yellowish liquid in the blood on which red blood cells float. This is because Hannah’s plasma contains antibodies that are attacking her own immune system. Thus, she must undergo this procedure three times a week, in order to continuously replace her plasma.

While plasmapheresis is a relatively common treatment for those with autoimmune disorders, it’s not a comfortable experience to go through so frequently. And as Hannah herself notes on her COTA fundraising page, “This is a treatment, not a cure.” Nevertheless, Hannah has undergone hundreds of plasmapheresis sessions at this point.

Additionally, Hannah undergoes chemotherapy, which is also commonly applied in order to treat sufferers of MG. However, the chemo has resulted in multiple side effects, including Hannah’s eyelashes falling out, as well as fatigue and sores. Hannah must also take a wide range of other medications, including steroids, which come with their own wide range of powerful side effects. “All of these treatments are very intense and leave me with little quality of life,” Hannah writes.

However, some cutting-edge medical research suggests that individuals like Hannah, who suffer from severe MG, can be treated successfully with bone marrow transplants. Bone marrow produces blood, including T-cells, the main regulators of the immune system. However, due to MG, these T-cells don’t work the way they’re supposed to, and instead of attacking disease, they attack other cells in the human body. Thus, it stands to reason that by replacing bone marrow and giving the patient a chance to produce an entirely new set of normal T-cells, doctors are giving sufferers of MG another chance at being healthy. This is why Hannah’s family sees this procedure as so vital, in terms of giving her back some quality of life.

In their efforts to raise the $500,000 needed for Hannah’s bone marrow transplant, the family has also received some aid from their local church, St. Joseph Parish. According to the church, some members of Hannah’s family have been members there for over two decades.

However, with their new fundraising campaign, it’s clear that Cole and Marmalade have also got Hannah’s back.

Meet Hannah

Hannah used to be a teenager who loved the outdoors and sports. In middle school, she was active on a varsity ski team. However, due to her condition, she was unable to pursue these interests.

She was accepted as a student to the University of Minnesota in 2013, but could not attend because she was too sick.

As she notes on her personal Facebook page a tough day will involve taking up to 20 pills, at 2 a.m., 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. “Chewing and swallowing is hard for me, and my mouth is super dry and full of sores from chemo,” she notes.

However, her love for cats — including the Cole and Marmalade videos — have made some of the tough days go down easier.

She even dressed up as a rainbow tiger in the hospital for Halloween.

Hannah Kiresuk dressed up for Halloween

Hannah Kiresuk dressed up for Halloween

Hannah’s other interests include HBO show “Game of Thrones,” the Lord of the Rings series, and her family pets. These pets include a blue-eyed husky and an orange cat that bears a striking similarity to a certain “Marmalade” YouTube star.

She is also an active participant in a program called Beads of Courage, which awards young people with a glass bead for every medical procedure they undergo. Hannah has amassed quite a collection!

hannah with Beads of Courage

Hannah with her collection of beads from the Beads of Courage

Cole and Marmalade step in

Cole and Marmalade and their human owners are now helping Hannah with a new fundraising campaign they’re calling “Promote Pawsitivity.”

They are selling t-shirts with this logo in three different colors for $15.99, not including shipping costs. All proceeds will be donated directly to Hannah’s family, in order to help pay for the bone marrow transplant. Over a hundred shirts have been sold thus far.

After the t-shirt campaign ends, Hannah’s family will still be accepting donations via their COTA page: COTA for Hannah.

The owners of Cole and Marmalade say they were inspired to step in and support Hannah because “none of us should ever feel alone in our struggles.”

“Knowing that we all have an amazing support circle online helps each one of us find that joy in life that we deserve,” one of the cat owners, Jessica Josephs, says in the video announcing the Promote Pawsitivity campaign.  

Both Poole and Josephs say that they’ve suffered from depression, while Josephs struggles daily with anxiety. Having the cats has helped them with these conditions, they say.

While the Cole and Marmalade YouTube channel includes hundreds of videos, over 200,000 subscribers, and over 60 million views in total, Poole and Josephs say their Promote Pawsitivity video is different from their typical content.

Indeed, it’s the first time the YouTubers have stepped out to ask their supporters to help another fan raise much-needed cash for a good cause.

Previous Cole and Marmalade videos have struck a more light-hearted tone. Some have even won awards, such as this one below, which was awarded first place in an annual cat video competition hosted by Friskies cat food brand. The video shows the ever-curious Marmalade finding a new cozy spot to hang out — inside a miniature bathroom trash can.

Other videos are more educational, teaching cat owners how to make homemade treats, including cat “popsicles” consisting of frozen tuna, or how to give cats baths without getting scratched.

So why launch a video campaign for Hannah, which is not the typical kind of content produced by the Cole and Marmalade brand?

As Poole and Josephs put it, they’ve received thousands of comments from Cole and Marmalade fans around the world, thanking them for making cat videos that brighten up their day. Fans have gotten in touch with them to say the Cole and Marmalade videos have “helped cheer them up, whether they’re feeling sad, lonely, depressed, or while they’re battling anxiety, sickness, or during a recovery period, “ Poole says in one video. “This means more to us than you might have realized.”

Hannah is just one of these people and Poole and Josephs clearly felt moved enough by her situation to pitch in. Hannah herself got to meet Cole and Marmalade quite recently, after taking the measures necessary to protect her weakened immune system, as can be seen in the image below.

Hannah meeting Cole and Marmalade

Hannah meeting Cole and Marmalade

Poole and Josephs have also had their own recent experience in struggling to pay expensive medical bills. After tumors were found in Marmalade’s intestines, the couple turned to crowdsourcing and ended up raising some $15,000 in order to pay for the cat’s treatments. These included multiple chemotherapy appointments, as well as surgery in which part of his intestine was removed. Luckily, however, in late 2014 Marmalade’s cancer was found to be in remission. This experience undoubtedly made Poole and Josephs sympathize with Hannah’s situation.

The hashtags for Hannah’s campaign include #‎COTAforHannahK, #PromotePawsitivity, and #TeamHannah. So far, the Cole and Marmalade video announcing the Promote Pawsitivity campaign has received over 4,000 likes on YouTube, with fans tweeting reactions like, “Everyone needs a dose of cute kitty cats in their life,” and “This is an awesome video.”

The next following months will prove crucial for Hannah, so if you feel like doing as Cole and Marmalade did and lending a “paw,” head over to Hannah’s COTA page to donate now.

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