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Saving Lives Is A Family Affair

Bone Marrow Recipient’s Cousin Donates Marrow
after Joining Registry on Cousin’s Behalf

When 11 year old Maddie Tomasko of Rockford, Michigan was clinging to life, hoping to find a bone marrow match for a potential lifesaving transplant to cure her leukemia, her parents Cheryl and Steve hosted several Be the Match® registry drives with Michigan Blood. Maddie had not found a match with her parents or three brothers (only 30% patients find a match with a direct reative), so they turned to the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP)’s Be the Match Registry for help. The Registry contains more than 10 million potential donors internationally, yet only 40% of the 10,000 patients who turn to the Registry each year find a match. The Tomaskos were committed to helping grow the Registry to help increase Maddie’s – and thousands of others – odds to find a match.

Fortunately, Maddie found a perfect match with a 20-year old stranger from New Jersey who joined the Registry as part of a drive at her college in Pennsylvania. Maddie underwent her transplant in June of 2011 and is now a healthy, thriving 7th grader. She met her donor, Stephanie Pezzello, last summer at the World Trade Center Memorial. Their meeting spot not only pays tribute to all those volunteers who gave of themselves to save others on 9-11, but on that tragic day in 2001, only one non-military flight was allowed in the air following the attacks, and it was a bone marrow courier plane.

Pay It Forward

The Tomaskos hosted “Team Maddie” and “Maddie Pasta for Purpose” Registry Drives in 2011 and 82 people stepped forward to join the Registry.  One was Maddie’s cousin, Jason Walcott. Jason had watched how Maddie’s life was saved by Stephanie’s generous donation, and he wanted to do the same. The likelihood of a perfect match is slim – one in every 540 people on the Registry gets a call. “It was the least I could do,” said Jason. “I was really hoping to get a call – Maddie is here today because someone else stepped up.”  Jason did, and earlier this year he went to Michigan Blood’s Grand Rapids donor center (1036 Fuller NE) to donate his bone marrow for a patient with a rare form of cancer of the blood. 

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 the release of contact information.

Life on the Sidelines 

Maddie joined her 21-year old cousin Jason during his six hour donation process, along with her mom and Aunt Pat, Jason’s mom. “We wanted to keep Jason company because we could imagine what his recipient and family were going through,” said Maddie. Cheryl added, “When you are holding your breath for the courier to arrive and you know just how sick your loved one is, all your energy is going toward keeping the marrow donor healthy so nothing goes wrong. To be watching Jason donate, it brought everything full circle.” 

Jason’s mom Pat, added: “We walked the road with Maddie and now we are on the other side.  This creates several different emotions – it reminds us of what Maddie went through, and knowing the reality of what Jason's recipient is going through is very tough. Now I know what Stephanie’s family went through and I am so proud of my young son. We were so focused on keeping Jason healthy and that everything went well, and now we can’t wait to get correspondence from the National Marrow Donor Registry staff. To know that Jason joined the Be the Match Registry to help his cousin Maddie, and now his marrow is helping save the life of a leukemia patient somewhere in the world, it is amazing and humbling. We encourage all 18-44 year olds to consider joining the Registry.”     

Michigan Blood’s Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Programs will host a Registry Drive on Monday, February 25, 2013 from 5-9 pm at The Mitten Brewing Company, 527 Leonard NW, in Grand Rapids. The Mitten Brewing Company selected Michigan Blood as its charity partner for the month of February, donating a percentage of sales all month to help offset testing costs to join the Registry. Marrow donors, recipients, staff and volunteers will be on hand to welcome guests and share their stories. For more information on joining the Registry, contact Kona Dominick, Michigan Blood – Stem Cell Programs Be The Match Representative, Office – 616-233-8516, Cell – 616-209-9228, kdominick@miblood.org