GENEVA — Over the last couple of years, Jess Farrell has developed a strong bond — albeit it through email, Facebook and Skype — with Madeleine “Maddie” Stanton and her family.
It was a bond that started in November 2014, when Farrell — who now lives in Geneva but was then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota — donated her bone marrow to save Maddie, a young girl from Texas who had been diagnosed with leukemia.
After connecting online several years later, Farrell and Denise Stanton — Maddie’s mother — corresponded many times about meeting in person. For one reason or another that didn’t happen until the recent Memorial Day weekend, when the Stantons came to the Finger Lakes for Farrell’s wedding to Virgil Slade, a history professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
“I wanted the day to be about our wedding, not about me donating. I didn’t want it to overpower our day, but Denise and their family are like family to me,” Farrell said. “I could just tell they wanted to be a bigger part of my life, so I thought they should be here for the wedding.”
Farrell finally met Maddie when the Stantons arrived at Seneca Lake State Park on May 25 for a pre-wedding gathering. The wedding was the next day at Zugibe Vineyards in Fayette.
“We were thrilled to finally meet her in person. I felt like we won the lottery,” Denise said recently by phone from the family’s home in Boerne, Texas, a small city near San Antonio. “We got to meet Jess and her family. The wedding was just amazing.”
Farrell, who grew up in Massachusetts, signed up for the national bone marrow registry more than a dozen years ago when she was an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. Coincidentally, it was the same college Maddie’s father Matt attended about 10 years earlier.
“I was 19 or 20 at the time,” Farrell recalled. “They were doing a drive on campus and I signed up.”
However, it was eight years before Farrell was contacted and told she was a perfect match for a 7-year-old girl from Texas with leukemia. She didn’t think long before saying yes.
“When you find out it’s a 7-year-old girl who may die without this donation, how can you say no to that?” Farrell said.
Maddie was 6 when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Denise said her daughter was fine when she finished kindergarten in the spring of 2014, but started experiencing back pain by the end of June.
“We didn’t think anything of it, but it became excruciating for Maddie after awhile,” she said. “She woke up screaming one night and we went to the emergency room. It seemed to be stomach pain and they thought it might be constipation.”
Maddie’s condition stumped doctors for awhile, but an MRI showed a spot on her vertebra and a biopsy confirmed leukemia. While her original diagnosis was a common form of leukemia that could be treated with chemotherapy, a later diagnosis confirmed hypodiploid acute lymphoblastic leukemia — a rare, aggressive form that warranted a marrow donation.
Farrell donated her marrow during a Nov. 7, 2014 surgery at a Minneapolis hospital. While she laughs about it now, Farrell admits being alarmed when told how the procedure would go.
“They took the marrow out of my pelvis. They said it was basically like taking a two-liter bottle of Coke out of my hip,” she said. “I said ‘Holy crap, how do you get that much out?’”
The marrow was flown to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where Maddie received it — in a procedure similar to a blood transfusion — at 2 a.m. Nov. 8 while she was asleep in her hospital room.
Denise said Maddie had some complications the following spring but was able to go home for good around Christmas of 2015. Today she is a healthy and happy 11-year-old who will enter middle school in the fall.
“She has done dance for about four years now and we are now doing horseback riding lessons. She is playing volleyball and meeting more friends,” Denise said. “She is slowly coming out of her shell a little bit. Knock on wood, she’s doing great.”
Denise and Matt Stanton first emailed Farrell around Thanksgiving 2016, leading to becoming Facebook friends and talking to each other — and Maddie — on Skype. Not surprisingly, their first meeting in person was an emotional one.
“I see a lot of myself in her. It’s a very powerful connection,” said Farrell, who is studying for her PhD. “To see her healthy and happy is powerful.”
“We were so happy to be able to attend the wedding. Jess and Virgil are such kind, loving people,” Denise said. “Maddie reminds me a little bit of Jess. She is definitely her own person, like Jess, and marches to her own drum. Her teachers say she is very serious when she goes to school. She goes there to work and is a pretty serious kid.”
Denise, who volunteers for Be The Match (see accompanying box), the national bone marrow organization, believes the bond her family has established with Farrell will remain strong for years to come.
“Jess is inside Maddie forever,” Denise said. “We hope Jess can come to Maddie’s wedding and Maddie’s graduation when she gets her PhD.”