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Rachael Leisy

Stranger becomes Kansas woman's donor, hero and inspiration

Like winning the lottery.

It's a fitting way to describe Rachael Leisy's good fortune. Though she didn’t literally hit a big-money jackpot, Rachael faced odds of one in 11 million in her fight against a life-threatening disease – and won.

In August 2006, 20-year-old Rachael was starting her sophomore year at Kansas State University when she got a phone call from her mother: Come home immediately. A blood test she’d had that summer revealed she had myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a rare disorder that can develop into a deadly type of leukemia.

"I think of (The University of Kansas Cancer Center) as my healing center. It's where I found out I was cancer-free. It's such a welcoming feeling to come here."

-Rachel Leisy

She would need a peripheral blood stem cell transplant to survive, and the search for a donor began in earnest. Coincidentally, her older brother Matthew was already on the donor registry; recruited during a blood drive, he’d given his marrow to a stranger who was battling leukemia. But he wasn’t a suitable match for his sister.

Rachael and her family then turned to the National Marrow Donor Program  (NMDP) to find an unrelated donor. Out of more than 11 million registered marrow donors worldwide, Rachael was a match with four.

And one of them quickly stepped forward to save her life.

"We learned later that my donor's son had successfully beaten leukemia, so he knew exactly what my family was going through," Rachael said. At the time, all she knew was that on Oct. 6, 2006, a stranger's healthy stem cells were successfully transplanted into her body.

The stranger didn’t stay that way for long. Though the NMDP doesn't allow donors and recipients to know anything about one another for a full year after transplant, Rachael could write the donor a thank-you letter. Within a month, she got a response. And from there, their bond continued to strengthen.

"I found out he was a 49-year-old dad, and being a bone marrow donor was his way of giving back for the gift his son had been given," she said. "We kept writing letters, and I started signing them 'Your Other Half.' I thanked him over and over for saving my life."

Regular correspondence continued, and the two decided to meet once NMDP's restriction ended. A few days after the one-year anniversary, her donor called. "We talked for an hour on the phone," Rachael said.

Her donor lived in Connecticut, a short train ride from New York City, where Rachael and her family were planning a visit with her brother.

They arranged to meet over dinner – fittingly, on Thanksgiving.

"Once the train doors opened, I knew immediately it was him," Rachael said. "I call it the 'famous hug picture,' because as soon as we hugged each other it was like paparazzi around us with all the camera flashes going off. It felt like the whole world just stopped."

Rachael is now three years post-transplant and cancer-free, though she has developed graft-versus-host disease, a complication of her transplant. She comes to the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Care Pavilion every three weeks, spending eight hours over two days receiving photopheresis treatments.

"I think of this place as my healing center," she said. "It's where I found out I was cancer-free. It's such a welcoming feeling to come here. I see doctors and nurses who have been with me through all of it."

She recently painted a tile through Tiles of Hope, the arts-in-healing program. She and her parents painted a different word on three tiles, which together spelled out Rachael’s personal motto: Thankful for life. Every day she wears a bracelet with the same sentiment.

Rachael has also become a passionate advocate for bone marrow drives. Inspired by her donor's selfless act, she participated in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk 2009, and has held bone marrow drives on the K-State campus, where she's now a senior.

In May, Rachael will marry to her longtime boyfriend, and her donor is planning to attend. Of course, he's already given her the best wedding gift.