A life-saving story: Little Maddie's match

12-year-old Maddie and her "Be the Match" bone marrow donor Stephanie Pezzello.

Cheryl and Steve Tomasko received a call on April 7th, 2011 while driving to Kentucky. It was an unforgettable phone call. The Tomaskos were told that their daughter, Maddie, had leukemia and needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately. The family turned around, drove straight to Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, and Maddie began multiple three-hour sessions of chemotherapy. Maddie's cancer resisted the chemo, and her only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant.

As many of you know, I am participating in this year's Swingshift and the Stars Dance-off for Charity. My charity is Michigan Blood's "Be the Match" bone marrow program. I met one very special little girl who has inspired me, and will continue to inspire me forever. Maddie is funny, energetic and most of all, the most optimistic person I've ever met! And guess what? Maddie is only 12 years old. She is a Leukemia survivor, and so very inspiring! Maddie Tomasko is just one of the faces behind Michigan Blood's "Be the Match" program. And so is another young woman: Stephanie Pezzello. Stephanie lives across the country, but received a phone call one afternoon while shopping. She was a match for Maddie!

Stephanie Pezzello was home on break from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, and at the mall with her sisters. She didn't recognize the number on her cell, but fortunately answered the call from the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). Stephanie learned she was a potential match for a 10-year old girl. Stephanie had joined the NMDP's Be The Match® Registry a year earlier at a college registry drive organized by fellow athletes from the football team. At the drive, Stephanie did a quick cheek swab, provided health and contact information, and learned that transplants between strangers may be the only lifesaving treatment option for patients with leukemia, lymphoma and 70 other blood related diseases. However, even with 10 million people on the Registry, exact matches only occur 4 out of 10 times. She hoped she would be a match, but figured the odds were against her. Fortunately for Maddie, they weren't. Maddie's three younger brothers were tested to see if they were a match for the transplant she desperately needed. They were not. In fact, according to Barbara Hile, Program Manager for Michigan Blood's Marrow/Stem Cell Program, "Patients needing blood stem cell (marrow) transplants can only find a suitable match within their family about 30% of the time. The remaining 70% of matches are made between complete strangers via the Be the Match Registry."

Another 'never to be forgotten' phone call was made. Diana Pezzello was on her way to work as a nurse in Manhattan when her daughter Stephanie called. Diana understands the critical nature of a bone marrow transplant and what would be involved for her then 20-year-old daughter. She recalls, "from the moment we were told Stephanie was an exact match, we were completely invested in a girl we didn't know and her family. Our entire focus was on keeping Stephanie healthy because a little girl was being prepared for a bone marrow transplant and if something happened to Stephanie that would have been devastating to her."

Maddie began intense chemotherapy to wipe out her white cells, and the bone marrow transplant was scheduled for June 23, 2011. Stephanie and her family traveled to Philadelphia to donate her bone marrow on June 23, 2011 during a 3.5-hour surgery under general anesthesia. Approximately 80% of marrow donations are performed non-surgically - much like a blood donation. All costs associated with the donation are covered for the donor.

After six months and 31 immune suppressants a day, specially prepared food, and very limited contact with anyone other than family, Maddie returned to school. She had been home schooled and Skyped with teachers and classmates in her 5th and 6th grade classes, and "couldn't wait to go back." Her mother Cheryl was far more apprehensive. "We were very scared about her being back in public, and when she came down with a fever we all held our breath."

Now, Maddie is healthy, smiling and so very thankful. Maddie and her mother, Cheryl, stopped by the 7&4/ABC 29&8 station to tell us their story, as Cheryl and I surprised Maddie with a skype interview with her life-saving donor, Stephanie.

Click the video above to watch!

Swingshift and the Stars Dance-off for Charity Grand Finale will be Friday, December 21, 2012. Doors open at 6:30pm and the show begins at 7:15pm. Tickets start at $20.00. If you're unable to make it, you're encouraged to donate to Michigan Blood and the five other wonderful charities participating this year. Thank you for your support! You can purchase tickets and donate HERE.

Just as phone calls can be life changers, so can letters. Stephanie received a call from the NMDP Registry a month after her donation, letting her know that the transplant took place and her marrow recipient was recovering. It was Cheryl's letters, followed by Maddie's, that built a bond between these two families.

On July 30th, 2012, Maddie wrote:

Hello! It's so nice to finally get to contact you in a different way. I don't know what to call you... like a nickname. So I'll just call you Stephanie. My real name is Madison. But you can call me Maddie. I'm 12 years old with piercing blue eyes, very short brown hair with blonde highlights and I'm 5 ft. tall to be exact. I'm going into 7th grade with an A average. My favorite color is lime green, i love lions, horses and dolphins. I've always wanted to visit New York, Kenya Africa and Canada. I'm a tom boy, very chatty and love to listen to music. My favorite movie is the Avengers, I love to play on Club penguin and my favorite food is My Aunt Pats Famous Cheesy Potatoes. That pretty much sums up me! I hope to meet you some day and I hope to learn more about you too! Love- Maddie.... LIONluver

For more information on Michigan Blood click HERE.