Stem cell donor travels 5,000 miles during pandemic to save 14-year-old girl battling leukemia
Sterling, a 22-year-old resident of Kauai, Hawaii, was volunteering at an eco-resort in Costa Rica when she got an unexpected email: she was a match for a teen girl fighting to survive leukemia, and Gift of Life Marrow Registry was trying to reach her. Sterling called her mother, Jennifer, from the hotel to tell her the news, then called Gift of Life. Her first question was, “How do I make this happen?”
That conversation was in late February 2020. While Gift of Life tried to arrange for her to have a blood test in Costa Rica to confirm that she was the best match for the patient, Sterling went on a camping trip with her friends. By the time she returned to town in early March, the coronavirus had exploded around the world and borders were being closed. No blood test could be done locally – she would have to return to the states, and quickly.
Mindful that she was needed to help save someone’s life, Sterling hopped on a plane for home. Friends who remained behind for a few more days were stuck in Costa Rica for weeks. Back in Hawaii, Sterling, her mom, and Gift of Life’s donor services coordinators worked to find the best place for her to donate.
“There wasn’t really an option in Hawaii, so we were thinking California might work,” said Sterling. “But then I talked to a donor who donated stem cells at Gift of Life’s collection center, and she spoke so highly of it, I decided to go all the way to Florida.”
To prepare her for donating, Sterling needed to have five shots of Neupogen to mobilize stem cells into her circulating blood where they could be collected. Fortunately, Jennifer was able to give her two of the shots as they traveled.
“My step-dad is an ear-nose-throat doctor so he gives a lot of shots,” said Sterling. “He checked mom’s technique and she did great, so we were all set.” She had her first shot the day they left Hawaii, and Jennifer gave her the second one during a layover at Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport.
When they reached Florida, the hotel in Delray Beach was nearly empty except for Gift of Life stem cell donors. “They treated us like royalty at the hotel, and the drivers were amazing, too,” said Sterling. “It was great to be in a hotel on the beach.”
Sterling recognized the passion that Gift of Life staff bring to their work. “You can tell everyone at Gift of Life is doing what they love, and that makes all the difference. The whole experience was above and beyond anything I expected.”
Sterling wants to help educate others about the registry and bring more donors in, especially those of Hawaiian and Asian ancestry, as these patients have a more difficult time finding transplant matches. “There are five high schools on Kauai, and although they may not be fully operational this year due to the pandemic, I want to do an educational program at each one,” she said. “Ancestry is such a big factor in finding a match, it’s important to bring a greater diversity of people into the registry.”
“I want everyone to know what a great experience this is,” said Sterling. “I joined Gift of Life while I was on my Birthright Israel trip, and the moment I heard the presentation I said, 'I'm doing it!' Definitely go ahead with it, take the jump! Gift of Life will walk you through the whole process with care.”
Sterling is wishing the best possible recovery for her young recipient and hopes they will meet someday. She loves to travel, is a longboard surfer, and studies yoga and other activities. While under lockdown during the pandemic, she has spent more time making both digital and real-world collages. She is a registered aesthetician, and works at a sustainable eco-store in Kauai.