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Sisters to the bone

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WOODSTOCK – Three-and-half years ago while working as a preschool teacher, Gina Ozanic felt tired. And she bruised a lot.

But her father bruised easily, too, so she didn’t think she was ill.

“I had every single sign, [but] I would classify each one as I am working so hard, that’s why I am so tired,” Ozanic said.

Ozanic, 26, of Woodstock eventually went for a checkup and found she had chronic myeloid leukemia.

After two years of medication, doctors at Rush University Hospital confirmed that Ozanic would need a bone marrow transplant to survive.

Physicians checked Ozanic’s sister, Angela, because there was a 25 percent chance she was a suitable donor.

In fact, Angela Ozanic, 23, who now lives in Batavia, was the perfect candidate to donate bone marrow to save Gina’s life.

“If I didn’t have a match, I was going to have to sit and wait,” Gina Ozanic said.

In two eight-hour sessions, Angela Ozanic, who is an assistant girls basketball coach at St. Charles North High School, donated enough bone marrow for four transplants. Gina has received two. The rest is being preserved in case they are needed.

The two sisters knew they could rely on each other. Growing up, their family moved several times because of their father’s job. They lived in Aurora, Greenville, Mich., and Iowa, and moved to Woodstock when Angela was in the eighth grade and Gina was a sophomore in high school.

“We were our only friends when we moved to a new place,” Angela said.

People will say “That’s such a good thing you did,” but it wasn’t an option not to be a donor, Angela said. “I would have been so upset if I couldn’t do it. I feel really lucky I was given the opportunity to try to help.”

Even Gina had some fear that her sister was doing the wrong thing.

“When I was told there would be a slight chance she could get leukemia from doing this process, I didn’t want her to do it, but I knew that there was no way I would survive without her doing it,” she said.

“There was probably no way you could tell me not to do it, either,” Angela added.

There is a 30 percent chance that someone who needs a bone marrow transplant will have a family member whose bone marrow is compatible, said Margaret Shannon, a community engagement liaison for Be the Match Registry, the largest bone marrow registry with 11 million people. There is a 25 percent chance of someone being a match with a sibling, Shannon said.

“Seventy percent of people diagnosed with a life-threatening disease hope a stranger is on the registry and willing to help ... which could be a pretty scary series of events,” Shannon said.

To sign up for the registry, people have to fill out basic paperwork with contact information and basic medical information. Potential donors then have their cheek swabbed – a process that takes five to 10 minutes. If they are found to be a match for someone, they receive more information about donating, and if they agree to give marrow, they go through more extensive tests to make sure they are healthy enough.

Donors then take medication to help produce more stem cells that are forced out of the bone and into the blood stream. Blood is then drawn from one arm, put in a centrifuge to separate out the bone marrow stem cells, and then the blood is returned to the donor. The extracted bone marrow cells are taken to the recipient, Shannon said.

“I think when donors have had the experience, it is life changing for them,” Shannon said. “They have a meaning that never can be taken away from them. It’s the most gratifying experience somebody can have.”

One in 540 people who join the registry go on to donate.

“I liken it to winning the lottery, because when you get the call, it’s really special,” Shannon said.

Before receiving bone marrow, recipients have to go through chemotherapy to kill their immune system so they don’t reject the donation, Shannon said.

A year after the first bone marrow transplant, tests show Gina is 99 percent of Angela’s DNA, including a change in blood type. And it seems that Gina has taken on some of Angela’s behavioral traits.

Gina has become a very clean and organized, opposite of the messy nature she used to have. She even helped clean her sister’s Batavia house one day, which was appreciated by the organized Angela.

Their young women’s career goals have switched, too. Gina started off as preschool teacher, and Angela wanted to go into the medical field. Since the transplant, Angela plans to go into education, and Gina is studying medical assisting.

Angela has since worked to try to encourage people to learn more about being a bone marrow donor.

In October she helped run a Be a Match registry drive at Aurora University, where she is a senior studying physical education. They signed up about 100 people.

She said she hopes to have a drive at St. Charles North, where staff members could sign up.

“It’s really not that hard of a process for you to go through,” Angela said. “It can completely save someone’s life. I don’t think there’s that many opportunities in this world these days where you could really save someone’s life and change someone’s life.

“To pass that opportunity up would be crazy.”

Need for donors

• More than 10,000 people every year in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma, and need a transplant from an unrelated donor for bone marrow or umbilical cord blood.

• 70 percent of patients in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family.

• Nearly half of patients in need received a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated person.

• There are 11 million people on the Be the Match Registry.

• To be donor, a person needs to be between 18 and 44 years old.

For more information, visit the Be the Match Registry’s website at www.marrow.org, or the Rock River Valley Blood Center website at www.rrvbc.org.

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