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Strangers meet to celebrate a gift of life

Samantha Galauskas, 3, who has Chediak-Higashi syndrome, and her mom, Jacki Galauskas, left, of Grayslake, Ill., get to know stem cell donor Shaila Lopez of Riverview and her daughter Bella, 4, Friday morning at Florida Blood Services in St. Petersburg.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Samantha Galauskas, 3, who has Chediak-Higashi syndrome, and her mom, Jacki Galauskas, left, of Grayslake, Ill., get to know stem cell donor Shaila Lopez of Riverview and her daughter Bella, 4, Friday morning at Florida Blood Services in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — You are a match.

The sight of the hot yellow sticker on the letter shook Shaila Lopez so hard she had to sit down in her kitchen.

It had been years since she'd tried to donate blood as a wiry Wharton High graduate, since she'd been rejected for being too skinny. Years since blood workers suggested she enter the National Marrow Donor Program registry instead.

She didn't think anything would come of it. Lopez hadn't even told her husband she was in the registry because it was so far from her mind.

"I was speechless," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

She had to decide whether to open her vessels to a total stranger. She got an odd feeling in her stomach.

"I'm a believer that things do happen for a reason," she said.

• • •

In Illinois, a little girl was very sick.

Samantha Galauskas had been healthy until age 14 months, when her family noticed things happening, like her hair turning metallic shades. The diagnosis came in June 2007 — Chediak-Higashi syndrome, a rare, bleak disorder that causes infections, abscesses and albinism.

Samantha, now almost 4, needed stem cells. She didn't have any siblings.

"We were at the mercy of complete strangers," said her mother, Jacki Galauskas, 38.

While Samantha slept in her mother's arms in the hospital, the call came. Lopez had agreed to the transplant.

"It would have been so selfish of me not to," said Lopez, 26, of Riverview.

She went through physical exams, testing and piles of paperwork. She took growth hormones to stimulate the production of stem cells. Then she had them drawn out for Samantha.

After the first transplant, Samantha got sick and needed more cells. Lopez started taking hormones again, but this time, the process made her feel sick. She left a doctor's appointment and prayed out loud in the car that the pain wasn't in vain.

Her phone rang. Doctors had discovered extra preserved stem cells from Lopez. She didn't have to donate again.

Samantha had another transplant and got better.

• • •

Donors and recipients aren't allowed to meet for one year.

But Samantha's parents couldn't wait to say thanks. Without identifying themselves, they arranged to send a card with a picture of a tutu-clad little girl dancing on the beach. Lopez displayed it on the desk at K-Force in Ybor City where she works.

Dear cherished donor. What do you say to a complete stranger who has done so much for you and your family? Better yet, how do you say it without saying anything at all?

Friday, Florida Blood Services in St. Petersburg arranged for Samantha and her family to meet Lopez for the first time. Lopez drove across the bay; the Galauskas family flew in from Illinois.

Samantha kicked her shiny pink shoes and sipped milk while her mom told her story to people in the Florida Blood Services lobby. Lopez waited in a back room until it was time.

She came out, hugs turning to happy tears. They gave her a scrapbook of Samantha's photos. They all wore pink boas and cut cake and got to know each other.

"I would have done it if it was a 60-year-old man," Lopez said. But her connection to Samantha is different.

Lopez brought a guest to the ceremony.

Her own daughter, Bella, born two months before Samantha.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Fast facts

Enter the registry for free

Florida Blood Services currently has government funding that covers laboratory fees for those who want to enter the National Marrow Donor Program registry. If you are 18 to 60 and in good health, you can enroll at any donor center or bloodmobile by submitting a DNA sample collected via a mouth swab. Call (727) 568-2100.

Strangers meet to celebrate a gift of life 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 11:23pm]
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