Coming Full Circle

Danielle Eichner, 37, a childhood cancer survivor, was diagnosed on July 19, 1996 with high-risk T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at age 11 1/2. While a patient at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, Danielle developed ARDS, respiratory failure which required intubation. The only treatment plan in 1996 for High-Risk T-cell Leukemia was a bone marrow transplant. No family member matched Danielle, so an unrelated donor would have to be found using the bone marrow registry.

Danielle’s oncologist, Joseph, Gootenburg, M.D., had information that NIH was running a clinical trial that focused on High-risk T-cell Leukemia in children. Dr. Gootenburg contacted NIH asking for permission to use this unapproved treatment plan on Danielle. The family learned that NIH had given compassionate permission for Danielle to use a protocol that included chemotherapy and cranial irradiation. The family knew it would be really hard on Danielle – and, the first time they used cranial radiation on a child presenting with high-risk T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia.

While a patient at Georgetown University Hospital, under the care of oncologist Aziza T. Shad, M.D., Danielle and her family found comfort in a pediatric art therapy program, run by Tracy’s Kids. Using art activities, this program helps cancer patients and their loved ones manage emotional stress and trauma often experienced after a diagnosis and during treatment. Danielle, who undergoes a follow-up examination annually since her diagnosis, says that the “therapy enabled her to share her fears and concerns when she wasn’t able to fully communicate with words what she was feeling.”

Fast forward to 2022, Eichner is now a pediatric art therapist for the Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai working with Tracy’s Kids program, the very program that helped her in 2001.

Eichner added: “Art offers an amazing platform for expression and reflection. As a patient, I didn’t fully realize how much art therapy was helping me, and that’s the magic of it.

Now as a therapist, Danielle can appreciate the value of supporting pediatric cancer patients during their diagnoses and treatment. Sinai believes in the family-centered approach to care, which improves clinical outcomes for children and provides crucial support for families facing health challenges. Connecting with pediatric patients to ensure their healing is taking place both medically, but also emotionally, is important.

In her role at Sinai, Eichner connects with patients both as a survivor and as an art therapist. Her passion for art grew into a career path after earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in graphic design from Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art and her Master of Arts in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While in Chicago, Eichner started an art therapy program at a children’s hospital in Illinois, which is where she was employed when Shad, who now is the Director of Sinai Hospital’s Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, offered her an exciting opportunity to join the staff at Samuelson’s Tracy’s Kids program.

Danielle and Dr. Shad remained close over the years. It was hard leaving the art therapy program she started in Illinois after forging close bonds with so many families in her seven years there, but returning to her home state (she’s from Rockville, MD) and reuniting with the doctor and support program that were instrumental in her recovery was a dream opportunity. This opportunity was truly coming full circle.
Returning to Maryland and working alongside the oncologist who was part of the team that saved her life is a story she looks forward to sharing with her kids one day.

As a young patient at Georgetown University, Danielle fondly recalls attending events with CCF founder Shirley Howard.

CCF has supported Sinai Hospital since 1984 and has funded over $1.2M in programs and capital investments. For 2021, CCF has funded a mindfulness program.

Danielle and Nathan are the proud parents of two girls, Logan, born in 2018, and Elliot, born in 2021.