Philipsburg

12-year-old Emily Whitehead pens essay for Time on the doctor who saved her life

Kari, Emily and Tom Whitehead attend the Emily Whitehead Foundation's Believe Ball in October
Kari, Emily and Tom Whitehead attend the Emily Whitehead Foundation's Believe Ball in October Emily Whitehead Foundation

When 12-year-old Emily Whitehead was asked by Time magazine to write about what makes Dr. Carl June an inspirational person, it didn't take her long to respond.

"She did that all herself in under 10 minutes," her father, Tom Whitehead, said about his daughter's essay that was published as part of the Time 100: Most Influential People of 2018 on Thursday. "It didn't take long."

June, a researcher at Penn Medicine, was named as one of Time's "most influential people" for his research and pioneering work in developing CAR-T-cell therapy, which is an immunotherapy treatment that reprograms a patient's T-cells to fight off cancer cells.

That then-experimental treatment saved Emily's life in 2012, when 6-year-old Emily’s cancer had relapsed and no other treatments were working. Emily's parents were told to take her home for hospice care, but they weren’t ready to give up.

Emily, of Philipsburg, was enrolled in a Phase I clinical trial in April 2012 and became the first child in the world to have her immune system trained to fight cancer. The treatment was approved by the Food and Drug Association to fight certain cancers in 2017, making it the first-ever FDA-approved gene therapy.

Followed by cameras for the upcoming 2019 documentary about her treatment experience, Emily just recently had her cancer-screening checkup, and all scans came back clean. On May 10, she'll be celebrating six years cancer-free.

"Dr. June saved my life and had a huge impact on my family. Without him, I wouldn't be here today writing this — and my parents and I wouldn't be helping other kids beat cancer," Emily wrote in her Time tribute. "Dr. June is my hero."

For Emily, as the founder of the nonprofit Emily Whitehead Foundation, having the chance to write this tribute for June was just one small way to say thank you.

"It meant a lot because he's done so much for us," she said. "By writing that, I was able to show him everything he did for us and what he means to us."

For June, having Emily be the one to write the tribute made the honor all the more special.

"It was a surprise to him," Tom Whitehead said. "He knew he won but he didn't know Emily was writing the tribute, so he just texted me and said, 'Tom, it brought tears to my eyes to read Emily's nice tribute.'"

Aside from the opportunity to show her appreciation for June and his research, Emily was also excited for the chance to write for such a prestigious publication. After all, Emily's tribute is published alongside essays written by former President Barack Obama on the Parkland, Fla., students, and Mindy Kaling on fellow actress/comedian Issa Rae.

"I was excited to write it because I really like writing in school and when I was little I used to write stories. So I thought it would be really cool to write it," Emily said.

Since the article was published, Emily has gotten a lot of compliments — including from filmmaker Ken Burns, who has become a family friend over the years.

On Tuesday, Emily and her parents — Tom and Kari — will head to New York City to attend the Time 100 gala, a red-carpet affair honoring all who made the list.

Emily, who just got her nails done and is going dress shopping this weekend, is especially looking forward to the gala for the chance to meet "Stranger Things" actress Millie Bobbie Brown, who made the list in the artists category.

Once the gala is over, don't look for the Whiteheads to slow down. After school ends in June, the family is traveling to Stockholm, Sweden, ahead of the European launch of the T-cell treatment, to help encourage doctors and researchers there ahead of the launch, as well as to spread awareness about the treatment.

When they return home, they'll have the foundation's annual charity golf tournament hosted by former Oakland Raider Jon Condo at the Philipsburg Elks Country Club to look forward to on July 13. They're also hoping to open an Emily Whitehead Foundation office in Philipsburg.

"We just get requests all the time and we get a lot of parents and patients that call all the time from all over the world looking for help. So we need somebody there all the time during the week to help take those calls and help inspire people, help them find trials when standard treatments aren't working, and then helping to raise funds and apply for grants," Tom Whitehead said about the need to open an office. "We're just trying to expand as we go and try to help as many people have the same success that we did."

Emily said that to be able to represent the foundation, to work to help other kids and families like hers and to spread awareness of the treatment means a lot to her.

"It's pretty amazing because I had to go through all of that, and now I'm home and it just seems like none of that ever happened."

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