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Girl needs marrow transplant; Labonte wants to help

NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte will support Charlotte child at Daytona's Budweiser Shootout

- eleland@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Feb. 07, 2011

A 6-year-old girl fighting for her life against leukemia has touched the hearts of Charlotteans, and their outpouring of support could help other cancer patients, too.

A mechanic with NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte's team was so moved by an Observer story about Jordan Jemsek that he suggested the team promote a March 5 bone marrow drive in her honor. And so this Saturday at the Budweiser Shootout in Daytona, the back of Labonte's No. 47 Camry will feature Jordan's picture and "www.getswabbed.org."

Other readers are spreading the word about the donor drive on Facebook and Twitter, and Keith Larson promoted it over WBT-AM radio.

"I have cried at least three times a day, so many people are sending e-mails saying, 'What do you need?'" said Jan McGrath, a neighbor of the Jemsek family who is helping organize the drive. "This isn't just for Jordan, but it's her face right now."

On Monday, the Speed cable network filmed Labonte visiting Jordan at Presbyterian Hemby Children's Hospital and will air footage next week. Like all visitors, Labonte strapped on a mask to protect Jordan from germs.

She hadn't heard of Labonte before, but greeted him with a big hug and asked him to autograph her pink bicycle helmet and her Wii remote-control steering wheel.

Her mother, Kay Jemsek, hugged mechanic Joey McCarthy, whose idea it was to promote the bone marrow drive.

"Thank you," Kay said, and began sobbing. McCarthy teared up. He has two daughters, Mackenzie, 6, and Cassidy, 3, and said that after reading the Observer story Jan. 31 he decided he had to help Jordan.

"I can only imagine how helpless they feel," McCarthy said. "If I have to drag everybody out of the shop to get tested... I will keep pushing it and pushing it."

A bone marrow transplant is Jordan's only hope. She has acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. If a perfect match is not found, doctors will kill off her bone marrow and replace it with the closest match.

A Charlotte businessman, who requested anonymity, offered his jet to fly her to Washington, D.C., where the transplant will take place at National Children's Hospital.

'Save somebody's life'

A representative from the DKMS bone marrow donor registry in Manhattan flew to Charlotte on Monday to work with organizers of the March 5 drive. It will be at St. Gabriel Catholic Church, 3016 Providence Road, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Organizers are looking for a sponsor to cover the cost of $65 per swab.

"Jordan is the local cause, but whoever comes to the drive is going to be placed on the national registry," said Annette von der Muehlen of DKMS. She said she heard by e-mail from about 100 people after the Observer story ran.

"We are so grateful," she said. "We depend on the kindness of people."

You must be between 18 and 55 to donate. At the drive, the inside of your cheek will be swabbed. Then DKMS will add you to the Be The Match Registry. If you can't be at the drive, you can order a swab kit ( www.getswabbed.org).

If you are found to be a match with someone, there are two ways to donate, depending on the patient. Some require cells from the bloodstream. Others, like Jordan, need bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow donors are given a general anesthesia and cells are extracted from the back of the pelvic bone with a syringe. Afterward, many donors experience some pain for a few days up to two weeks.

"It is a big commitment to sign up as a donor," von der Muehlen said. "But at the end of the day, you might save somebody's life."

Helping everyone

Jordan's parents, Kay and Joe Jemsek, said they are grateful for all the support.

"In her young life, she has now spent almost 11 months in a hospital bed, received numerous courses of chemotherapy, been violently ill too many times, and been medicated for pain, nausea and sleep numerous times," Joe Jemsek said in an e-mail. "And we know, and I believe Jordan knows this intuitively, that there is more to follow before she either recovers from or succumbs to her illness."

He noted that Jordan's joyful spirit has brought attention to herself and to her plight. But he added: "In the broader view... it may be a good thing for all of us to know about."

DONATION DETAILS

To learn more about bone marrow donation: www.getswabbed.org.

Click on "Donor Drives" to find out about the March 5 drive in Jordan's honor at St. Gabriel Catholic Church, 3016 Providence Road, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

To learn about Jordan: www.caringbridge.org/visit/jordanjemsek.

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