The World Trade Center evokes an emotional reaction most often associated with destruction, devastation, and loss. For one little girl and the young woman who saved her life, it was the site this August for a joyful ‘reunion’ between two strangers.
So much can change with just one phone call.
For Cheryl and Steve Tomasko and their young daughter Maddie, the call they received on April 7th, 2011 while driving to Kentucky will never be forgotten. The Tomaskos were told Maddie had leukemia and needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately. The Michigan family turned around, drove straight to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, and Maddie began multiple 3 hour sessions of chemotherapy. Maddie’s cancer resisted the chemo, and her only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant.
A second call was made – this time to a complete stranger from New Jersey. Stephanie Pezzello was home on break from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, and at the mall with her sisters. She didn’t recognize the number on her cell, but fortunately answered the call from the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). Stephanie learned she was a potential match for an 11-year old girl. Stephanie had joined the NMDP’s Be The Match® Registry a year earlier at a college registry drive organized by fellow athletes from the football team. At the drive, Stephanie did a quick cheek swab, provided health and contact information, and learned that transplants between strangers may be the only lifesaving treatment option for patients with leukemia, lymphoma and 70 other blood related diseases. However, even with 10 million people on the Registry, exact matches only occur 4 out of 10 times. She hoped she would be a match, but figured the odds were against her.
Fortunately for Maddie, they weren’t. Maddie’s three younger brothers were tested to see if they were a match for the transplant she desperately needed. They were not. In fact, according to Barbara Hile, Program Manager for Michigan Blood’s Marrow/Stem Cell Program, “Patients needing blood stem cell (marrow) transplants can only find a suitable match within their family about 30% of the time. The remaining 70% of matches are made between complete strangers via the Be the Match Registry.
Another ‘never to be forgotten’ phone call was made.
Diana Pezzello was on her way to work as a nurse in Manhattan when her daughter Stephanie called. Diana understands the critical nature of a bone marrow transplant – and what would be involved for her then 20-year old daughter. She recalls, ‘from the moment we were told Stephanie was an exact match, we were completely invested in a girl we didn't know and her family. Our entire focus was on keeping Stephanie healthy because a little girl was being prepared for a bone marrow transplant and if something happened to Stephanie that would have been devastating to her.”
Maddie began intense chemotherapy to wipe out her white cells, and the bone marrow transplant was scheduled for June 23, 2011. Stephanie and her family traveled to Philadelphia to donate her bone marrow during a 3.5 hour surgery under general anesthesia. Approximately 80% of marrow donations are performed non-surgically – much like a blood donation. All costs associated with the donation are covered for the donor.
In Grand Rapids, the Tomaskos, surrounded by family and friends, prayed all day that nothing would happen to their anonymous donor or the currier flying the marrow to Grand Rapids.
Another call stopped time – temporarily. The currier was able to catch an earlier flight and Maddie’s transplant was moved up to the middle of the night.
Maddie spent weeks in the hospital in a completely sterile environment, waiting for the neutrophils to develop in her blood. The transplant required destroying her white cells, which fight infection in the body.
Little did Maddie know at the time that she was receiving bone marrow from a true ‘fighter.’ Stephanie plays field hockey for Moravian College and has been awarded the Landmark Conference Defensive Player distinction.
The National Marrow Donor Program does not allow donors or recipients to learn of each other’s identity for one year following the transplant, and each party must agree to releasing contact information.
After six months and 31 pills a day, specially prepared food, and very limited contact with anyone other than family, Maddie returned to school. She had been home schooled and Skyped with teachers and classmates in her 5th and 6th grade classes, and “couldn’t wait to go back.” Her mother Cheryl was far more apprehensive. “We were very scared about her being back in public, and when she came down with a fever we all held our breath.”
Just as phone calls can be life changers, so can letters. Stephanie had received a call from the NMDP Registry a month after her donation, letting her know that the transplant took place and her marrow recipient was recovering. It was Cheryl’s letters followed by Maddie’s that built a bond between these two families. On July 30th, 2012, Maddie wrote:
It's so nice to finally get to contact you in a different way. I don't
know what to call you... like a nickname. So I'll just call you
Stephanie. My real name is Madison. But you can call me Maddie. I'm 12
years old with piercing blue eyes, very short brown hair with blonde
highlights and I'm 5 ft. tall to be exact. I'm going into 7th grade
with an A average. My favorite color is lime green, i love lions,
horses and dolphins. I've always wanted to visit New York, Kenya
Africa and Canada. I'm a tom boy, very chatty and love to listen to
music. My favorite movie is the Avengers, I love to play on Club
penguin and my favorite food is My Aunt Pats Famous Cheesy Potatoes.
That pretty much sums up me!
I hope to meet you some day and I hope to learn more about you too!
Love- Maddie.... LIONluver
A ‘Reunion’ at The World Trade Center Memorial
Maddie got her wish – on August 9th, 2012, the Tomasko family packed up their motorhome and drove through the night to New York to meet Stephanie and her family. When the doors of the World Trade Center subway opened, both Cheryl and Diana were crying, and Cheryl said, “We were overwhelmed. After all that time sitting in the hospital praying, ‘please, please someone be a kind soul to donate,’ we were now meeting Stephanie and her family.” Diana added, “The days leading up to meeting the Tomasko family were so exciting, she is an amazing child and a truly loving family, we love them. We are so grateful to be able to participate in something so important in life.” Ironically, this ‘reunion’ at the World Trade Center has added significance. On September 11, 2001, all commercial flights were grounded. The only plane allowed to fly besides those of the military was one delivering lifesaving bone marrow to a waiting recipient.
As for Stephanie, she is happy to share with everyone considering joining the Registry: “It is so worth it to help save someone’s life.”
Tomaskos and their Community Give Back …
- “Team Maddie” (comprised of family, friends, and members of their congregations) hosted a National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match® Registry drive on June 18, 2011. Thirty-three people joined the Registry.
- On November 5, 2011, the Rockford Community hosted a ‘Maddie’s Pasta for a Purpose’ fundraiser to help Registry drive was held and forty-nine people joined the Registry.
- Maddie’s 5th Grade Class at Crestwood Elementary School (Rockford Public Schools) also joined forces to raise $7800 for the American Cancer Society Rockford Relay for Life – the event was held just one month after her diagnosis.