Nearly two weeks ago, the St. Joseph Catholic School student visited Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, where she was told she needed to undergo intense chemotherapy in preparation of a bone marrow transplant to save her life.
Her family is awaiting test results to determine what type of bone marrow she will need for a transplant. Afterward, she will be eligible to sign up on the bone marrow registry to begin the process of finding a donor match.
“She’s about to turn 7 years old right now,” Rona Roberts said of her only child. “She’s a vibrant young lady. When she learned that she had to undergo this process again, she was afraid she would lose her hair.”
Leah has been at this place before.
At age 3, she was diagnosed with Stage IV of Wilms’ tumor, a rare type of kidney cancer that affects children. The advanced stage meant the cancer had spread to her other body organs. After three weeks of chemo and eight rounds of radiation treatments, surgery was performed to remove a football-size tumor and a kidney in April 2009, Roberts said.
Last December, Leah was moved to Children’s Healthcare’s Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program for long-term, follow-up care. “When you move into survivor’s status, you have to go in for routine scans and blood work,” said Roberts, a Marietta High School teacher.
Roberts, 42, said she is the first-cousin of ABC’s “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, who was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, and is awaiting a bone marrow transplant from her sister later this year. While discussing her cousin’s condition with a doctor during one of her daughter’s check-ups, they learned unsettling news.
“We were about to leave and her oncologist said, ‘Let me go get her blood work before you leave,’” Roberts recalled. “She came back in and that’s when she said, ‘I don’t want to freak you out, but her blood work does not look good.’”
Following a recent bone marrow biopsy, medical officials determined that Leah had leukemia.
“About 20 to 40 percent of her bone has leukemia, which is very early because Leah had not shown any symptoms,” Roberts said. “She has been doing her gymnastics, swimming and having a ball. It was hard news to hear.”
Since that time, Leah has been preparing for a bone marrow transplant at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.
July is African-American Bone Marrow Awareness Month, a campaign to boost the number of black donors, who currently make up just 7 percent of 10 million registered potential donors, according to the nonprofit National Marrow Donor Program’s Be The Match Registry.
Patients are most likely to match someone of their own race or ethnicity, said Rod Gunn of Be The Match’s Atlanta office.
“We really need more minority patients to step up and join the registry,” he said.
“Each year, there’s more than 10,000 patients in the United States that are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma, and their best or only hope for a cure is a marrow transplant from an unrelated donor or umbilical cord blood unit.”
According to Be The Match, the majority of marrow donations don’t require surgery and recovery time is between two to seven days. Healthy people between the ages of 18 and 44 are particularly sought after to donate.
Last Sunday, Maryclaire Andres expressed her sympathies and support in an email to Roberts, whom she’d never met. However, their children attended first-grade at St. Joseph’s. Andres, who owns Promo-Photo, an event photography company, has volunteered to assist in getting the word out about Leah’s search for a donor match.
“Her story just touched me. I actually have not met Rona before this because Leah and Will, my son, were in separate classes. But I have met Leah, and she is so delightful and so sweet, and my son thinks the world of her,” said Andres.
“So on Sunday of this past week, the class received an email asking for prayers and possible people that may be interested in donating or signing-up for the (donor) website. The class mom sent out the email. When I read it, it just touched me and I felt like I needed to do something.”
Andres said she is in the process of organizing various events to bring awareness to Leah’s urgent need.
From 12:30 to 6 p.m. Sept. 16, a fundraiser and donor registry drive will be conducted at the Constitution Day Festival of Georgia in Marietta Square. Another fundraiser and drive will be conducted from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Whole Hawg Happenin BBQ & Music Fest in Marietta Square.
Leah’s birthday is around the corner in August. A colleague of her mother sent her an early gift in the form of an Apple iPad, which she received Friday at Egleston. Her ordeal has, if only momentarily, reunited her parents who separated. In spite of not being eligible to donate for a transplant, Roberts, a St. Croix native, and Alvin Anderson Jr., who works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are doing whatever else they can do for their daughter.
Leah acknowledged that she has not felt well in the past few days. But neither is she in a rush to return to school, where he favorite subject is math. She has, though, begun to dream about what she wants to do once a donor is found and she regains her health.
“I want to see my friends, swim, do gymnastics and dance,” she said from her hospital bed.
Roberts understands that the road to finding a donor match might be a long and challenging one, but she said she hasn’t allowed herself to dwell on the possibility of not finding a match for Leah.
“I’m a little fearful to ask that question, but I’m extremely hopeful that it will come out on the right side,” she said.
To learn how to register as a bone marrow transplant donor, call 1-800-627-7692 or visit www.marrow.org.
Additionally, Be The Match will conduct a donor registry drive for 11-year-old Valaria Fenderson of Cobb County, who was born with sickle cell anemia, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Atlanta Blood Services, 220 Cobb Parkway North, Suite 100, Marietta.