MAYWOOD, IL – Leukemia survivor Emily Dziedzic was overcome with emotion Sunday when she met a young man from Oklahoma who saved her life by donating his bone marrow.
Ms. Dziedzic, 23, met her donor, Joshua Riggs, 20, in front of about 400 patients, family members and caregivers during the 27th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Celebration of Survivorship at the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center at Loyola University Medical Center.
Ms. Dziedzic is the second person whose life Mr. Riggs has saved. When he was 8 years old, Mr. Riggs received a police department heroism award after saving a baby from drowning in a swimming pool.
“I like to help people,” Mr. Riggs said. “I’m excited to meet her, and to see what she plans to do now that she has her whole future again.”
Ms. Dziedzic, a dental assistant, lives in south suburban Worth. Now that she’s healthy again, her future plans include traveling to all 50 states (she’s been to 25 so far). And she would love to go to Australia.
In 2012, Ms. Dziedzic was diagnosed with an unusual case of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML is uncommon before age 45; the average patient age is 67, according to the American Cancer Society.
After an initial round of chemotherapy, Ms. Dziedzic went into remission. When the leukemia came back, Ms. Dziedzic’s only hope was a bone marrow transplant.
Before the transplant, Ms. Dziedzic received high-dose chemotherapy. In the process of killing cancer cells, the chemo also killed her immune system cells. So she would need an infusion of bone marrow cells, which develop into healthy new immune system cells.
Ms. Dziedzic’s brother and sister were willing to donate, but they did not match. So Ms. Dziedzic’s oncologist, Tulio Rodriguez, MD, searched the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match® registry. Mr. Riggs, who had signed up for the registry, was a close match.
When he was asked to donate, he readily agreed.
“I’ve given blood since I was 16,” he said. “This was another opportunity to help someone.”
At Mr. Riggs’ local hospital, a physician used a needle to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of his pelvic bone. Mr. Riggs said it hurt the next day, and he was sore for a week, but was glad to do it.
Dr. Rodriguez said Mr. Riggs saved Ms. Dziedzic’s life.
“Despite all the technology we employ, we still rely on the good intention of donors,” he said.
Patrick Stiff, MD, director of the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, said he continually is amazed that donors such as Mr. Riggs “are willing to go through a potentially painful procedure to save the life of someone they have never even met.”
And Mr. Riggs said he would do it again.
Loyola has treated more leukemia patients with bone marrow transplants than any other center in Illinois, and has one of the largest unrelated donor transplant programs in the world. Loyola receives referrals from throughout the Midwest, including from other academic medical centers in Chicago.