While Emily Lester battled for her life last weekend, a bone marrow drive in her name at the Jim & Heather Gills YMCA in St. Petersburg registered more than 375 potential donors to the National Marrow Program Registry
Lester, 18, a Seminole High School student and recipient of the 2008 Barnes Scholarship, faces her third battle against acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment at St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis, and awaits a matching donor for her second bone marrow transplant.
While volunteers organized the registry drive last week, Lester's condition deteriorated rapidly. Jim Previtera, Lester's uncle, said complications compromised her lung and kidney function and she was placed in intensive care. She is currently on a ventilator and kidney dialysis, and her parents maintain a 24-hour vigil by her side.
"She is a very sick girl," Previtera said. "Hopefully the medical intervention can stabilize her so her body will start to heal."
At one point last week, doctors said Lester would not likely live through the night.
"Put into perspective and realizing what this kid's been through, the fact that she is still here is a testimony to how tough she is," Previtera said.
After her initial diagnosis in 2001, Lester underwent chemotherapy treatments. She suffered a relapse in 2005 and received a transplant with bone marrow donated by her little sister, Catherine. After her immune system recovered, Lester was able to return to school, where she ranks fourth in her class of 430.
But in January, doctors discovered the cancer had returned. Now she requires a transplant with marrow donated from a nonrelative.
Lester's family hopes the registration drive will yield a suitable match.
"Emily knows this is a numbers game," said her aunt, Mary Ann Renfrow. "The more people we can get registered, the better chance we have of finding a match."
Each day, more than 6,000 people battling leukemia, lymphoma and other blood related diseases search the registry, hoping to find a match.
Potential donors who missed the drive can still register through Florida Blood Services. Registrants are asked to pay a $52 fee, which covers the cost of tissue typing. The organization waives the fee for those who donate blood when they register.
Registration involves swiping a cotton swab on the inside of the potential donor's cheek. An off-site lab tests the sample to determine tissue type and enters the information into the registry where doctors around the world can search for matches for their patients.
Donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60, in generally good health, and weigh more than 100 pounds. Those with a body mass index greater than 25 percent cannot donate marrow.
Lester spearheaded the first Bay to Bay donor drive in March 2006 and has been active with many cancer related causes. Even though her sister was a match the first time around, she became aware of the need for nonrelated donors through Casey Snow, her hospital roommate during her first battle with the disease. Casey died in 2004.
Renfrow said she finds inspiration in Lester's willingness to give, even while battling for her own life.
"It makes you feel like you are not as good a person as you should be," she said. "Ironically, something Emily created can now benefit her."
Only about 30 percent of patients needing bone marrow transplants find suitable matches from family members, according to the National Marrow Donor Program, leaving the other 70 percent to depend on the donor program to find a match.
About 88 percent of white people find a suitable donor through the registry. Minorities suffer worse odds, with only about 66 percent finding a match.
Katrina Holley, the marrow program manager for Florida Blood Services, said tissue type is inherited and patients are far more likely to match someone of the same ethnicity. Misconceptions and lack of education about the donation process often keep minorities from registering.
"The more we can make inroads to ethnic and minority groups, the more we can get added to the registry," she said.
If matched with a patient, donors begin a process than can last from three weeks to several months. Donors attend informational sessions and doctors perform additional tests to ensure the best match.
The actual donation process involves outpatient surgery, typically performed under general anesthesia. The procedure consists of one to four small incisions, less than a quarter inch in length that require no stitches, made over the back of the pelvic bones. The doctor inserts a hollow needle through the incision to withdraw marrow. Most donors go home the same day, although some may require an overnight hospital stay.
Side effects from donation may include lower back pain, swelling, stiffness and bleeding at the collection site. Most donors fully recover within a couple of weeks.
The recipient pays for all of the donor's expenses.
Michael Maharrey can be reached at 727-893-8779 or firstname.lastname@example.org.