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Anna's Angels Take Flight

Driven by love and hope for a bright future, a father and mother—faced with their daughter’s diagnosis of Down syndrome and leukemia—dedicated themselves to raising funds for research. With family and friends by their side, Anna’s Angels has garnered local and national support.

Driven by love and hope for a bright future, the parents of a girl with Down syndrome and leukemia dedicated themselves to raising funds for research. With family and friends by their side, Anna’s Angels has garnered local and national support. 

Following the birth of their second child in June 2001, Andrew Merrills and Michelle Pfeiffer Merrills learned that their daughter had Down syndrome. Testing at birth also revealed that baby Anna had irregular white blood cells, an indicator that she was at risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia (AML). When Anna was just over a year old, her platelet count began to drop. The family reached out to Duke Children’s Philip Rosoff, MD, director of clinical ethics and former chief oncologist. Rosoff conducted tests and delivered the news that Anna did indeed have AML. 

“I will never forget what Dr. Rosoff said,” says Michelle. “He said he was sorry to tell us that Anna did have leukemia, but he was grateful that she had Down syndrome because children with Down syndrome have a higher survival rate.” Throughout this challenging time, they discovered how incredibly strong their daughter was. After undergoing eight months of chemotherapy treatment at Duke Children’s, Anna went into remission and is now cancer-free.

Settling For Nothing Less
Andrew and Michelle were encouraged by Anna’s successful cancer treatment at Duke Children’s and the spirit Anna displayed through it all. The experience taught them about the unique conditions and qualities of Down syndrome and AML. However, it also helped them understand that, at the time, limited information and research had been conducted to determine the relationship between the two conditions. Down syndrome children who develop AML have experienced a higher cure rate than children without Down syndrome, but the reasons are still unknown. Anna’s parents saw this limitation as an opportunity to make a difference in Anna’s future and for children who face similar situations. 

“As a family, we chose to share our experience with others to create new opportunities and promote research for individuals with Down syndrome and their loved ones,” says Michelle. On behalf of their family and in partnership with Duke Children’s, the Anna Michelle Merrills Fund for Down Syndrome Research (Anna’s Angels) was created in November 2003. 

Since Anna’s Angels began, Andrew and Michelle have worked closely with Priya Kishnani, MD, chief of pediatric medical genetics at Duke Children’s. “Dr. Kishnani is such a gifted researcher and so genuinely passionate about moving Down syndrome research forward,” says Michelle. “I have been so moved over the years by how deep her passion is to help children, and I see this in her ability and willingness to collaborate with other institutions and do what is needed in the field of Down syndrome research.”

Reaching New Heights
Anna’s Angels raises funds through special events, such as the Anna’s Angels Gala, and its network of supporters are found throughout the community and across the nation. 

 “We are fortunate to have a community that will do so much to help our loved ones with Down syndrome,” says Michelle. Two of Anna’s biggest fans are Yom Senegor and Kelly McNelis Senegor, who live in the Seattle area. Kelly and Michelle became close friends while attending N.C. State University. Yom and Kelly return to North Carolina annually to attend the Anna’s Angels Gala. 

“Andy and Michelle are loving parents who began this journey wanting to make a difference for their daughter,” says Kelly. “We can all learn from their example by recognizing the beauty of sharing our own experiences to empower others to make a difference in their communities.” Yom and Kelly have faithfully followed Michelle’s vision and are Anna’s Angels’ most dedicated donors and champions. 

“Supporting Anna’s Angels financially is the easy part,” says Kelly. “Creating and sustaining such a foundation is the challenge that Anna’s Angels takes on each and every day.” 

“Our hope for the donations made to Anna’s Angels and the future of Down syndrome research is two-fold,” says Yom. “We hope for an increased focus to improve cognitive and communicative skills for people with Down syndrome. We also envision that the donations will bring the best researchers to this area to continue research and development.” Through their close alignment with Duke Children’s, they have witnessed the growth and advancement Kishnani and her team have made over the years. 

“We really trust that Dr. Kishnani is putting forth the effort and passion to deliver results,” says Yom. “She is a gifted and resourceful doctor, and she ensures the donations are being used effectively and efficiently.” 

“I’m proud of what Michelle and Andy have created and dedicated themselves to,” says Kelly. “I am inspired daily by the perseverance and love that they have poured into Anna’s Angels on behalf of their daughter and all Down syndrome individuals.” 

Since Anna’s Angels began, the organization has raised more than $1 million for Down syndrome research and treatments at Duke Children’s. New advancements and accomplishments include a Down syndrome registry (BioBank) and speech therapy. Join Anna’s Angels in their efforts to support medical research and advancements in Down syndrome at Duke Children’s. 

Help Anna’s Angels raise funds for Down syndrome research at Duke Children's. Make a donation or create your own fundraising website. [Details for 2014 coming soon.]