Barbara Skonicki, 45, found her perfect match. She has never met the 33-year-old man, but considers him her silent angel. Skonicki found her life-saving match through the National Marrow Donor Program and next week will receive his bone marrow in a transplant.
Her medical journey began five years ago. A routine blood test revealed the mother of four's devastating diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The disease creeps in as bone marrow makes too many abnormal white cells. The cells don't develop into healthy, infection-fighting agents.
Skonicki spent several years in the "watch and wait" mode, which is common for CLL, she said. Two years ago, the disease raged on, followed by six months of unsuccessful chemotherapy. Doctors said her best hope was a transplant. None of her family members was a match, including her three brothers.
She was sent to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, which led to grueling preparation for next week's transplant. After the transplant, she will spend almost four months recuperating in the hospital.
• • •
Despite the challenges Skonicki and her family are facing, they want to get the word out about the importance of becoming members of the National Marrow Donor Program. The program's registry has a new name, Be The Match Registry, but the goal is the same: saving lives. Skonicki said she's one of the lucky ones who found a perfect, unrelated genetic match. In fact, 70 percent of patients don't have a family member able to donate and must rely on the kindness of strangers.
"Signing up to donate can start with a tissue sample from a simple cotton swab inside the mouth," said Skonicki.
If a search finds a possible match, additional blood samples may be requested. Donors must be between 18 and 60, in good health and willing to donate to a patient in need. The donor's healthy blood-forming cells are given directly into the patient's bloodstream. Hopefully, they get busy and multiply.
J.B. Gaskins, vice president of donor systems at Florida Blood Services, said donors are especially needed for minorities.
"We have a critical need for donors with diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds," he said. "African-American, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic and multiple races are in high demand."
Being placed on the registry doesn't always mean being selected.
"I've been a registered donor for 20 years," Gaskins said. "I've never been asked to donate but am still hopeful that I will."
He said that when people give blood or platelets at Florida Blood Services, they can be placed on the registry, too.
• • •
In support of their mom, Matthew, 22, and Adam, 19, held a donor registration drive at Winthrop University in South Carolina, where Matthew recently graduated and Adam is a student. They signed up more than 200 students.
Many people also signed up at an awareness and fundraising event on St. Pete Beach held in Skonicki's honor in March. More than 500 people participated. Donations are still welcome through walkthebeachforbarb.com.
"The walk was inspirational," said Skonicki. "All the people there were amazing. I have felt stronger since that day because of all the love and support."
Skonicki and her husband, Bret, 47, have two other children, Rebecca, 18, and James, 15. June 2 will be the couple's 25th wedding anniversary. She expects to be in the hospital at that time.
"It's been difficult for our family," said Skonicki. "But we are going to stay with a positive state of mind."
Someday, Skonicki would like to meet her silent angel. Guidelines state that maybe after a year she can. But for today, she focuses on being thankful for her perfect match.