Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Against the odds, Eckerd College student is called to help save a life

ST. PETERSBURG — When the phone rang and it was her daughter saying, "I want to talk to you about something, I'm going to do it, you can't stop me," Janis Roskoph wasn't terribly surprised. Her daughter, Alison, makes a habit of opening lines that keep hair dye a viable business. She once called from a car already peeling out of the driveway: Going on an impromptu road trip, it's going to be fine! And from a pay phone in Honduras: Going diving with sharks, talk to you later!

Alison, a 21-year-old senior at Eckerd College, always had the answers: who she was going with, when she'd check in, why she'd be safe. Janis calls her "my little traveler" because she's constantly going on adventures, rarely pausing to rest.

But this time, when the phone rang in October, Alison told her she was a potential bone marrow and stem cell match for a Maryland man dying of chronic myelogenous leukemia. She wanted to fly up to Washington, D.C., and be a donor. This was a different kind of adventure.

Her mother asked, "What are the risks? What's the process for donating stem cells and bone marrow? What's the recovery like? Who's going to pay for it?" And most of all, "Will you be safe?"

This time, her little traveler didn't know.

• • •

A year earlier, Alison had been approached by a friend at Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus, about registering students for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation's registry of donors. Alison said she'd be happy to get the word out. She created flyers and passed them out to needle-wary classmates. They could save a life, she said. More than 100 Eckerd students signed up. They had their cheeks swabbed. The data went to a lab.

Gift of Life estimates that one in 1,000 people in their registry will be asked to donate bone marrow, stem cells or both in a given year. Some may not get a call for decades. Most never will.

Sitting in class a year later, Alison received an email. A man a thousand miles away was dying of leukemia. Against the odds, an Eckerd student whom Alison had registered was a match.

It was her.

• • •

She was surprised. But Alison says she knew right away that she was going to be a donor. She was a match for a 57-year-old Maryland man with a cancer that starts inside bone marrow. His doctors said he needed stem cells.

"I can't imagine what he's going through and what his family is going through," Alison says. "I knew I could go with a little pain and suffering for someone else's benefit."

Last week, after months of blood tests, Alison started an injection regimen to increase her stem cell count. That way, when she gave stem cells at Inova Hospital in Falls Church, Va. on Monday, she'd have enough left for herself.

Alison and her mother landed in D.C. on Friday night, and although exhausted from the injections, Alison insisted they spend the weekend sightseeing. She tried on Lincoln's hat in the Ford's Theatre gift shop. "I did not have sex with that woman," she proclaimed at the presidential podium in the American History Museum.

Janis suggested they rest. But Alison was nervous and she didn't want a free minute to think. She wanted to have more adventures. They stopped in a Marriott near the White House. Alison fell asleep in the lobby chair.

On Monday morning, they took a taxi to the hospital. Janis wanted to go back with the nurses, but was told she had to wait. She felt afraid watching Alison go. "She's my baby. I wanted to be with her and protect her."

But Alison said, "It's okay, mom," like she was going on a road trip, or diving with the sharks.

• • •

For four hours her blood came out of her arm, filtering through a machine that removed the stem cells. Then the blood went back in the other arm. She felt tired, lying in the hospital bed, but stayed awake to watch Dolphin Tale. She had spent a summer interning at the Clearwater Aquarium and the movie reminded her of home.

The Gift of Life Foundation, which paid for all of Alison's expenses, might contact her again about giving bone marrow or more stem cells to the man who received her donation this week. Alison says she'd gladly do it again. Because of the foundation's rules, she won't be able to meet the man for at least a year. She says she doesn't mind, but hopes he gets better.

One thing that sort of makes Alison laugh is she'll be giving him her allergies. She hopes that doesn't sound mean. Alison is lactose-intolerant and fructose-intolerant, meaning she can't have dairy or fruit or anything with high-fructose corn syrup. It's just a funny thought, she says, that someone else will feel like she does after she eats ice cream.

Years ago, Alison's first preschool forced her to drink apple juice, despite how sick it made her feel. Janis chewed out the director, pulled her daughter out and took her to a new school.

On Tuesday after the procedure, Janis flew with Alison back to St. Petersburg. She lives in Ohio, but wanted to stay with her daughter a little bit longer. She wanted to know that her little traveler rested, if only for a day.

Lisa Gartner can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

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