BMT patient Yesenia Portillo, 15, gets rare chance to thank marrow donor

April 26, 2015 | by Nicole White

Updated: May 1

Yesenia Portillo’s search for a bone marrow donor started close to home.

bone marrow transplant Bone marrow transplant recipient Yesenia Portillo, pictured here with her sister Yolanda, will meet her donor at the 39th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.

Her brother, sister and seven cousins all underwent testing, but none of them were a close enough match to donate the bone marrow stem cells she desperately needed for her transplant.

Yesenia, now almost 16, had always been healthy and active. But in 2012, the-then 13-year-old began to tire easily and frequently became nauseated. Her mother, Rosealba took her to a doctor, whose staff drew blood for tests. The next day, Yesenia was at school in her eighth-grade gym class when her older sister Yolanda arrived to take her to the hospital.

“That’s when it started,” Yesenia said. “That’s when I was afraid there was something really wrong.”

After a brief stay at a community hospital, Yesenia came to City of Hope. Here, her doctor, Nicole Karras, M.D., diagnosed her with acute myeloid leukemia.

“It was like a stab in the heart when I found out,” Yesenia said. “My parents took it hard also. My family members were all worried. We just prayed to God that everything would turn out fine.”

The beginning of a search

Mother and daughter said they counted on prayers to get them through the hospital stay. Those prayers were supplemented by small, but priceless, moments and gifts. When her illness prevented her from accepting a certificate signed by President Barack Obama for being a straight-A student, a classmate brought it to her. Family members and friends routinely left plush toys for her to snuggle. Many brought letters filled with words of encouragement and support.

“The letters motivated me to be strong,” Yesenia said. “What really stood out the most in the letters was the Bible verses and text. It was really nice to know so many people would always be with me, praying for me and being supportive.”

The answer to one of their prayers came four months after Yesenia's diagnosis: A bone marrow match had been found. All Yesenia knows about her donor is that he’s a 30-something man from Ohio – and that, though he knew nothing about her, he saved her life.

She met her donor, Phil Ratcliff at the 39th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion at City of Hope on May 1.

“I was really happy, and in tears to find out that somebody stepped up,” Yesenia said. “I’m nervous to meet him. It’s something I’ve wanted to do so I can thank him in person for donating.”

Rosealba Portillo said  she is still finding the words to say to her daughter’s donor.

“Our kids are a gift from God, and as a gift, we’re supposed to take care of them,” she said. “It’s tough when we can’t do anything for them. I don’t have words to say to him. There’s not enough words to thank him for what he did. He stepped up for her without even knowing her.”

A new beginning

Once Yesenia received her transplant, her health improved dramatically. She had no trouble eating, and was munching on apples and oranges within a day of her transplant despite warnings that she might lack an appetite. By day four, she’d moved on to spaghetti and was well on her way to recovery.

Yesenia's mother stayed at City of Hope, while her father Luis Portillo, kept working at his job for a chemical company. He would visit his Yesenia at the hospital after work with Yolanda and her brother Pedro. The family would stay until well after midnight, go home, sleep for a few hours, then go to work and school.

Music also helped Yesenia during her time in the hospital. She would sing and sometimes even dance with the nurses. So, although the family was relieved when she was released from the hospital after a five-month stay, Yesenia herself was a little sad.

“When we were on the freeway leaving City of Hope, I turned around and started crying,” she said. “It’s like my second home. I really love everyone there. They’re so supportive and show a lot of love to you. It’s like home.”

Now, Yesenia is wrapping up her sophomore year in high school. Her teachers and classmates have been understanding, and she's beginning to feel that her life is returning to normal. She's already setting her sights on college and graduation.

Rosealba Portillo  is simply happy to see her daughter thriving again.

“My advice for other parents who go through this: Be strong,” she said. “Put your faith in God and pray. We know that he listens, especially in those tough moments. God is your best friend. Talk to him a lot. Show love and respect to your children, and to the doctors, nurses and all the hospital staff. And, lastly, be grateful to that person who donated.”

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Learn more about the Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute at City of Hope and more about joining the bone marrow registry through Be the Match.

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Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.

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