Every four minutes, someone is diagnosed with a type of blood cancer. Last semester, COD English instructor Suzanne Wielgos learned that firsthand, when her 19-year-old daughter, Sarah Wielgos, was unexpectedly diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia.
“We had no warning signs at all,” Wielgos said. “Initially Sarah was told she simply had a bad case of strep throat, but when it didn’t clear up, the doctors ran blood tests that confirmed the worst possible news.”
Within 36 hours, Sarah went from being a typical college student to fighting for her life with chemotherapy treatments and their painful side effects. During this time, doctors told the family that Sarah would need a bone marrow transplant for survival.
“I really couldn’t believe it when I was told I had leukemia. Three times already, I had grown out my hair and donated it to Locks of Love for wigs for cancer patients. I had even joined the bone marrow registry myself last spring when I participated in a Relay for Life event. It was such a shock, because I have always been healthy,” Sarah said.
While Sarah was shocked that her healthy ways still lead to cancer, her mother said she learned a lot through the process.
“And that caused me to learn a lot, quickly, about bone marrow donation,” Wielgos said. “While Sarah was going through rounds of chemo, her siblings were tested to see if they might be a match. If not, doctors told us, they would begin a search on the bone marrow registry.”
As Sarah’s treatments progressed, and weeks turned into months, they met the families of many patients who needed transplants, as well.
“When I was receiving early rounds of chemo, I remember meeting an adorable little girl who also had leukemia, and also needed a bone marrow transplant. Doctors were searching and searching for a bone marrow match, but I’m not sure if they ever found one,” Sarah said. “That just broke my heart. If I can inspire even a handful of COD students to register with Be the Match, they might just be the ones to save a little girl like her.”
Be the Match is a website where people can register to become marrow donators and according to Wielgos, the registry is especially in need to people of different ethnicities.
“No cancer patient should have to wait and hope and wait some more just because of his or her race or ethnic background,” Wielgos said. “There is definitely a need for people of all backgrounds to join the registry; anyone between the ages of 18 to 44 years old is needed.”
The process of registering is simple. Students can go to www.bethematch.org and send for a free kit, which contains a cheek swab and a post-paid return envelope. The organization stays in touch with registrants either online or by phone to maintain contact over the years, in case they ever need to reach them.
Wielgos emphasized that if someone is selected as a match for a patient, the process of donation has changed over the years.
“I learned that many times, the patient needs stem cells from the donor, rather than actual bone marrow from the hip bones. In fact, my other daughter donated her stem cells to Sarah through a process that is similar to being hooked up to an IV. For an average-sized donor, the process is perhaps a little uncomfortable, but not terribly painful or frightening.”
Wielgos’ daughter received her bone marrow transplant on February 4, which is now considered Sarah’s second birthday. She is still recovering from the process and is participating in additional studies in hopes of remaining cancer-free. A nursing major before the cancer diagnosis, Sarah is now planning to become an oncology nurse.
“I’ll never be able to thank my sister Mary enough for the sacrifice she made by giving me her stem cells,” Sarah said. “She literally saved my life. But there are others who don’t have siblings who are a match. For them, the bone marrow registry can mean a chance at life.”
The two are grateful that the Chicago area has so many outstanding medical facilities with cutting-edge technology for treating patients with blood cancers.
“If we can raise awareness of the need for COD students, and all people ages 18 to 44, to join the registry, we might be able to really make a difference in the world,” Wielgos said. “My story is living proof.”