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Boy's bone marrow donor works on Children's Hospital team

| Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, 7:30 p.m.
Nikki Nastasi, 27, of Forest Hills, a stem cell lab specialist at Children’s Hospital for the bone marrow transplant team whose responsibility is to search for bone marrow donors for our patients. She is also a donor herself.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Nikki Nastasi, 27, of Forest Hills, a stem cell lab specialist at Children’s Hospital for the bone marrow transplant team whose responsibility is to search for bone marrow donors for our patients. She is also a donor herself.
Nikki Nastasi, 27, of Forest Hills, a stem cell lab specialist at Children’s Hospital for the bone marrow transplant team whose responsibility is to search for bone marrow donors for our patients. She is also a donor herself.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Nikki Nastasi, 27, of Forest Hills, a stem cell lab specialist at Children’s Hospital for the bone marrow transplant team whose responsibility is to search for bone marrow donors for our patients. She is also a donor herself.

She knows little about the boy she saved.

She does not know his name. She does not know where he lives. She does not know what he looks like, only that the two of them are a match because they are genetically similar. So Nikki Nastasi, who is full-blooded Italian, imagines him resembling one of her young cousins.

What she does know is that he's only 3, that he has acute myeloid leukemia, a rare blood and bone marrow cancer.

And that whether he beats cancer or not, she will never meet him. The hospital has rules against that.

“That was my only disappointment,” said Nastasi, 27, of Forest Hills. “I'm allowed to send letters anonymously, but he'll never know who I am, and I'll never meet him. So my viewpoint is: Every day, I work with sick children here, and they're my recipients. I go to work, and I can say, I'm saving these kids' lives, not just his.”

Nastasi is a stem cell lab specialist for the bone marrow transplant team at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

She knows that the national registry of live bone marrow donors is short. So earlier this year, she contacted Be The Match, the national marrow donor program, to sign up.

That's when she remembered that she was on the list. In 2006, Nastasi attended a community college fair, saw the Be The Match volunteers, and — not knowing bone marrow would become her life's work — became a marrow donor. All it took was a mouth swab.

She went to college, studied biology and fell in love with lab work.

She got a job at Children's.

And then, 10 years later, she got the call.

“I was one of four people they wanted to test further to see who was the perfect match,” Nastasi said. “And it was me.”

The procedure was in July. Doctors stuck large needles into her hip bones, searching for and pulling from tiny pools of bone marrow. It's a painful process. Nastasi needed two weeks to recover.

“But I have a high tolerance for pain,” she said. “And there wasn't anything that was going to stop me from doing it.”

Now she waits: for news of the boy's health; for a call saying he needs more bone marrow from her; for the day the boy might send her a note, which she would cherish, even if his identity cannot be a part of it.

“I think of how hard he's fighting,” Nastasi said. “I think of the emotions going through his family. I think of how I have a brother and I potentially would not be a match for him, but that somewhere in this world there was a patient with a blood cancer whose immune system just happened to match mine.

“Those feelings go through me, and it gives me chills.”

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