RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — By now, 18-year-old D’Marco Jackson is used to the drill when he is in the hospital.
“Deep breath in,” he says along with the doctor, as she checks his vital signs.
“It’s enough to say I lost count,” Jackson explains about his time in the hospital. “I’m here more than I am at home sometimes.”
It was when Jackson was giving it his all on the Glen Allen football field that he first realized something was wrong.
“It seemed like the more I worked out, the less in shape I was, which is not how it should work,” he remembers.
Blood tests confirmed something was wrong on February 20, 2013. Jackson was diagnosed with aplastic anemia. His body stopped producing enough new blood cells. Doctors at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU prescribed buying time with immunotherapy, with the understanding a bone marrow transplant would offer a cure.
“We know with his type of disease that it’s very important to get the transplant as quickly as possible because the longer you wait, the higher your risk of having severe infectious or bleeding complications,” explains Dr. Christina Wiedl, a VCU Bone Marrow Transplant Physician.
Finding a match proved to be very difficult. Jackson does not have a sibling donor, and his Hispanic and African American makeup limits who can actually help. He spent two and a half years in and out of the hospital, endured countless checkups and sometimes learned bad news.
“It comes and goes like a roller coaster. Certain days I feel like I maybe could run a mile if I felt like it. But there are other days when I can’t even walk up and down my stairs at home,” Jackson tells 8News Anchor Amy Lacey. “I had a battery in me that wouldn’t die when I was healthy, and now it’s like I have one that won’t charge at all.”
Jackson relapsed in the spring, just in time for his graduation from Hermitage High School. He had transferred there and planned to play football. Instead, he made a bigger name for himself off the field with this moving two-minute commencement speech.
“I looked death in his face, and yes, it’s a he. I know because he’s visited me personally in my dreams,” Jackson says in the speech.
Five colleges, including his number one choice Temple, accepted Jackson, who ultimately had to defer to stay close to the hospital. It was his time there, however, that he realized a new goal, one that is far from the football field and close to his heart.
“Nurses, good nurses are what have helped me get through a lot of this,” explained Jackson, who said he wants to be a nurse to give back to kids living the nightmare he has already faced. “Now I know I have more to offer the world than just football. I think it took this for me to realize that.”
Finally, his college dreams are within reach.
“I didn’t think I’d live to see 19 because just in August my plan of action was to wait, wait, wait, and now all of a sudden, a week from now I’m about to go into a bone marrow transplant.”
He got the news just a few days ago. A stranger in Brazil is his perfect bone marrow match. Together they will begin his new chapter at VCU Massey Cancer Center.
“If everyone donated bone marrow, so many lives would be saved,” Jackson says, grateful for his donor.
In his graduation speech in June, Jackson told his fellow classmates, “If you or I put as much effort into gaining knowledge as we put into judging the people around us, we all have the power to change the world.”
Now he wants to change the world by being the face of a survivor, thanks to the person who selflessly offered to be his donor. Jackson encourages others of mixed heritage to join the Be the Match bone marrow registry to give everyone like himself a new chance at life.
“In just a few months, my whole entire road has changed. The road I’m going to travel has changed in a good way.”
Jackson turns 19 on Wednesday, but his mom says he will get a new birthday next week: October 16, the day he is scheduled to get his life-saving bone marrow transplant.