Leukemia survivor meets her bone-marrow donor in Maywood

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Leukemia survivor Emily Dziedzic meets Josh Riggs, her bone-marrow donor, for the first time at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Riggs, 20, of Oklahoma, volunteered to donate his bone marrow. On Sunday, he said, “It’s a shame if you can save a life and you chose not to.” | Loyola University Medical Center photo

A little bit of Josh Riggs flew from Oklahoma to Illinois last year to help save Emily Dziedzic from leukemia.

But it would be more than a year before Dziedzic would get a chance to meet her bone-marrow donor in person. So when she finally got her chance Sunday, she wrapped her arms around the 20-year-old Oklahoman who agreed to be “a little sore” in order to save a life. And he smiled as they shared a tight embrace in front of a crowd at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

“It’s a shame if you can save a life and you chose not to,” Riggs said as he later recounted the events that helped him form a permanent bond with Dziedzic, a 23-year-old dental assistant from Worth.

They said they first began communicating by text message and Facebook a year after their respective procedures in March 2014, but they met face-to-face for the first time Sunday during Loyola’s 27th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Celebration of Survivorship.

Dziedzic was diagnosed with an unusual case of acute myeloid leukemia in 2012, which is uncommon in patients younger than 45. The average patient’s age is 67, according to the American Cancer Society. Dziedzic went into remission after an initial round of chemotherapy. When the leukemia returned in October 2013, Loyola officials said her only hope was a bone-marrow transplant.

An infusion of bone-marrow cells would develop into healthy new immune systems cells, Loyola officials said.

Riggs had signed up for the National Marrow Donor Program’s “Be the Match” registry and closely matched Dziedzic. He agreed to donate, which meant letting a doctor draw the liquid marrow from the back of his pelvic bone with a needle. Riggs said the marrow was immediately flown from Oklahoma to Illinois, where Dziedzic received it the same day.

“It was crazy,” Dziedzic said. “I got it at, like, 9 o’clock at night.”

Now Dziedzic has a chance to visit with Riggs, who is in town until Tuesday. Dziedzic said she planned to show him Chicago’s downtown while he’s here.

In the meantime, they both tried to spread the word Sunday about how easy it is to donate bone marrow — and potentially save a life. Riggs said he signed up for the registry in three minutes by sticking five swabs from his cheek in the mail.

As for the procedure itself, he acknowledged it was a “bit painful” when he woke up.

“But it’s really nothing you can’t handle,” Riggs said. “A little bit of Tylenol, and you’ll be OK.”

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