Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Leeanne Hester was about three quarters of the way through a competitive master’s program in public health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., when an aggressive form of cancer sent her down an unexpected path.
Leeanne had been feeling progressively unwell for a number of months. After seeing a series of specialists and being misdiagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, she was finally correctly diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare but aggressive blood cancer that would require her to begin chemotherapy immediately. She was diagnosed on a Monday, and by Friday of the same week, she was back in Columbus, Ohio, and admitted to the OSUCCC – James, where she would begin her first round of inpatient chemotherapy.
Genetic testing revealed she had two mutations, and one put her at a high-risk for relapse. A bone marrow transplant was her best option for long-term cancer control.
A family match is the first choice for a stem cell or bone marrow transplant donor, however, her younger sister, Lindsay, was not a match. Her medical team turned to the National Marrow Donor Program, a registry that includes more than 13.5 million volunteers who stand ready to donate marrow for leukemia and lymphoma patients in need of a transplant.
Her donor was a 22-year-old man living in Israel, who agreed to donate whole marrow.
Stem cells for a transplant may be collected from the peripheral blood through an IV or from the bone marrow through surgery. In young patients with AML, the risk of a transplant complication, called graft versus host disease, is reduced if donors agree to give bone marrow stem cells.
Leeanne had her bone marrow transplant, and though she says the road was not without bumps or setbacks, she is doing well now.
After a year, bone marrow transplant recipients can request their donor’s information, which Leeanne did. She received a letter in the mail with the donor’s information.
She waited a few months to contact him but felt compelled to say thank you for his life-saving gift. She wrote the letter in English and had it translated into Hebrew and sent him both versions. He emailed her back about two months later. They have since exchanged correspondence, including photos.
“It’s weird because I feel like I know him, and it feels more intimate than it would be to meet a stranger, but in essence he is a stranger – it’s just that he saved my life,” says Leeanne.
Now entering the next phase of her life – marriage – she had the opportunity to meet her donor, Jeka Galinsky, in person when he traveled to the United States for her wedding.
“Blood and marrow donation is the most selfless gift anyone could ever give. It can literally save a life: I am proof of that,” says Leeanne.
When Leeanne asked Jeka about why he chose to register as a marrow donor, she recalls him saying: “It doesn’t matter to me anyone’s race, religion or nationality but to me all human life is precious and if I can help one person, I want to do that.”
“I think people see cancer as sort of an abstract thing – something that won’t happen to them or someone they know or love – but it does. I can tell you that from my perspective … if I could do this for someone else, I would in a heartbeat because it is the value of someone else’s life. That is the most precious gift: to save someone else’s life.”