Jennifer Leal's leukemia diagnosis led her to her life's mission.
"I want to raise awareness of stem cell transplants," said Leal from her hospital room at Yale New Haven's Smilow Cancer Hospital last Monday. "I want to get the word out about bone marrow and stem cell transplants."
It wasn't until she received a diagnosis of a type of cancer called acute myeloid leukemia last year that she learned of the extraordinary need for bone marrow donors.
"People die every day because they don't have a match," said Leal, a Westerly resident who turned 49 on Thursday. "Someone dies every three minutes from blood cancer. That's 480 people a day."
Leal, the mother of 14-year-old Isabel, a student at the Prout School, and 12-year-old Benjamin, a student at St. Michael School, hopes people will take some time to learn transplant basics and consider becoming a donor.
On her lifestyle blog, savorthethyme.com, Leal describes herself as "A New Englander who discovered her passion for science at a young age and her passion to be a Stay at Home Mom and Foodie a bit later." She is a data manager of clinical trials for Syneos, a biopharmaceutical company.
One Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2017, she recalled, she began to feel tightness and aching in her chest.
"Then my whole body began to ache," Leal continued. "But I had no other symptoms ... no cold or flu symptoms."
When the pain in her back and chest grew more intense she went to South County Health's Medical & Wellness Center, where she had an X-ray that was inconclusive.
"I told them 'I'm not leaving here until I know what this is,'" recalled Leal. "Hours later they told me I had leukemia."
After processing the information, Leal told the doctors, "Tell me who can save my life."
Leal headed to New Haven to the Smilow Cancer Hospital, went through chemotherapy treatments, went into remission and went back to work.
During a recent routine blood test, doctors determined that the AML had returned.
"Basically, the doctor said we think we can cure you with a stem cell transplant," said Leal, who is currently undergoing more inpatient chemotherapy treatments.
"I'm pretty good," said Leal, who moved to Westerly from the Manchester, Conn.-area 18 years ago with her husband, Domingos. "I just want to be home."
Home for Christmas with her husband, her two kids and the two family cats, Cheddar and Rachel.
While she waits for her cell counts to rebound and for an infection to heal, Leal spends her days exercising in her room, walking laps around the 11th floor of the cancer hospital, and reading and researching. There's a copy of the latest Liane Moriarty book, "Nine Perfect Strangers," at her bedside, along with a Joel Osteen book, she said.
But mostly she devotes her time to sharing news about the registry process for stem cell and bone marrow transplants.
All the information about joining the registry is available at the https://bethematch.org website, Leal said, but essentially, it all begins with collecting cells from the possible donor to see if there is a match for a patient in need.
Cells are usually collected by swabbing the inside of the cheek, said Leal. Samples are used to compare specific protein markers, known as human leukocyte antigens with HLA markers of patients in need of transplants.
Registration is free for potential donors in the 18-44 age range, and $100 for people 45-60.
Doctors search the Be The Match Registry to find donors with HLA markers that match those of their patients.
Searches happen on behalf of patients every day, Leal said, and when a registry member matches a patient, there are a number of follow-up steps, all described on the website. Donating bone marrow is a surgical procedure done under anesthesia in a hospital. Donating blood in circulation for a peripheral stem cell donation is a nonsurgical procedure.
Leal stressed that potential donors "need to educate themselves about the process, so that they really are committed donors."
She said she didn't want to discourage people, but added that "It's devastating to back out at the last minute, so people should read all the information on the website about the process."
As she said, being a donor can save someone’s life.