HADDAM, Conn. - At age 16, Kaitlyne McNamara is different in yet another way besides her defective spine, walking crutch, leg braces, and her 54 surgeries-and-counting. She has one of the world's first re-engineered bladders.
Since birth, she has coped the best she can with spina bifida, a defect that leaves the spine incompletely closed. She and her family have trudged a grinding treadmill of medical tests, treatments and procedures.
There was the urinary infection that nearly killed her as a toddler. There were the surgeries to correct her spine and legs. By age 11, there was the kidney damage that again put her life in jeopardy.
Yet maybe the worst part, for a budding teenager, was simply being different.
"Life has really been hard for me," she said in an interview last week at her uncle's house in Haddam, Conn., near her home in Middletown. "I didn't, like, fit in with the kids. Sometimes the kids made fun of me."
It isn't necessarily her crutch, braces, or 4-foot-2 height that set her apart, at least in her own mind. It was more the accidents from her diseased bladder, which would frequently leak.
Then, her mother, a nurse, heard of an experimental procedure that could regrow most of her bladder with cells from her own organ. Once sewn back into her body, the transplant would mature into almost a whole new bladder.
So it was time for more surgery in early 2001, this time at Children's Hospital in Boston, and for the aching homesickness that lasted through several weeks of hospitalization. "Just being afraid that it might not work was the scariest thing," the teenager recalls.
But it did work - even better than she might have hoped. The urinary infections, leaking, and daily diapers are now embarrassing memories, thanks to her reconstructed bladder. Her case and six others like it were reported Tuesday in The Lancet medical journal as an extraordinary advance in regenerative medicine.
Dr. Anthony Atala, the lead researcher, now works at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
For her, the medical breakthrough translates into an elegant new prom dress and new self-confidence. "It kind of boosted my self-esteem," she says. "I don't have to worry."
"You don't want your little girl to wear a diaper all her life," says her mother, Tracy. "Now I have a 16-year-old who's fairly normal. She's interested in clothes, she's interested in friends, phones."
"Not chores," her mother adds. But that only makes her like other teenagers too.