Homecoming queen and top student Briana Donis always wanted to go to the University of Texas at Austin.
“I was having a pretty awesome year. I was very well known at school and I had a boyfriend.” She had just been accepted at the school of her choice when she noticed how really tired she was all the time. And then the bleeding started.
“When I would cut myself, like it would be just a little paper cut, I would fill up a napkin with blood. I thought it was really weird.”
It was really severe aplastic anemia, and the 18-year-old had no way of knowing how serious it was. “I was like, okay, so I have severe aplastic anemia. What’s next? What do we do now? It didn't hit me until the doctors began telling me what I needed to do in order to save my life.”
Because her immune system was so badly weakened by the disease, she couldn’t go to school anymore, missing a lot of senior events as well as the start of her college education. “I wasn't able to attend prom, and it was hard knowing that all my friends were doing these activities that I should have been a part of. It really took a toll on my mind and my self-esteem, and I think that’s when I hit bottom.”
Immunosuppressive therapy was the first course of treatment, but it didn’t work in Briana’s case. She would need to prepare herself for a bone marrow transplant.
There was no DNA match in the immediate family but, amazingly, the National Bone Marrow Registry came up with five unrelated donor matches. “A lot of people aren't lucky enough to have even one match but I had many, so we were able to be picky.”
Even so, Briana’s first transplant was unsuccessful. She would have to go through the process all over again. Two years ago, she had the second transplant and, thankfully, this time it worked.
“So I’m a two-year old baby. I never thought that I wasn't going to make it through. I was aware of how serious it was, and I knew people who didn't make it, but I had confidence that I would.”
A hallmark of Briana’s nature is her firm belief that everything happens for a reason. That trait gave her the significant advantage of being able to accept and cope with her situation.
Optimism can’t be taught, but Briana had it in abundance. It served her well during the most stressful time of her young life. “I started to think oh, well, this is how it's supposed to be, and so that's the mentality that I stuck with.” She began by taking life day by day, “just riding it like a wave.”
“Once I could do that for myself, I was happy. I was actually excited to see where this would take me and what doors would open because of it.” One of those doors was AAMDSIF, which Briana connected with for the information, resources and support she and her family needed. This year, she was the Foundation’s “Star” of its Houston March for Marrow Run & Walk event. “I believe this really is raising awareness,” said Briana. “It’s such an important thing to do because most people don't know about severe aplastic anemia, MDS and PNH.”
Briana’s health crisis was so hard on her parents that even today, three years later, her father David still can’t talk about it without getting all choked up.
Her mother Yvonne told us how difficult it was to understand what her happy, gifted daughter was facing. “I didn't have much knowledge about what they were telling me, so I figured it was probably going to be an easier journey than her having cancer.” But she says she was wrong. “It was really hard, not just for my child but for all of us.”
Briana has some very straightforward advice for people who want to support bone marrow failure patients: “Donate, donate, donate. If you can’t give money to AAMDSIF, give of yourself. Volunteer. Get your cheek swabbed. It's not that hard. It's not that scary. If I can do it and if six-year-olds and two-year-olds in the hospital can go through it, I'm pretty sure that you can find a way to contribute your time and get swabbed to save somebody's life.”