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BUENA PARK : Colleagues Help Teacher Fight for Life

May 19, 1993|DEBRA CANO

Teacher Joy Johnson started the school year knowing there was a chance she might not live to finish it.

"I wondered if I would make it to the end of the school year," said Johnson, a teacher at Buena Terra School who went for a routine physical examination late last August and learned that she had chronic myelogenous leukemia.

"It was a real shock to find out I had this," she said. "I'm in my final years (of teaching), close to retiring to live happily ever after, but then I found out I may not be able to."

Johnson, 47, who has been teaching in the Centralia School District for 26 years, said a bone marrow transplant is her only hope of being cured. And her colleagues are helping her search for a donor.

"That is really your only chance," said Johnson, whose short, blond hair is thinned from drug treatments. "It's your only hope."

Johnson explained that she has learned to inject herself daily with the drug interferon, which helps to control the cancer, and called it a "miracle drug."

But, she said, "eventually, this drug won't be able to keep working."

Johnson, who is single and has no close living relatives, faces odds of 1 in 20,000 in seeking a bone marrow donor with a tissue match.

Her fellow teachers are sponsoring a bone marrow testing drive Friday and Saturday at the school at 8299 Holder St. in Buena Park.

"We care very much about her," said fifth-grade teacher Kaye Lewis. "She's family as far as we're concerned. She's very important to our staff and to our educational picture as a whole."

The bone marrow testing drive will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Second-grade teacher Kathy Smithson, who is helping to organize the drive, said it will be conducted by the American Red Cross. Prospective donors must be 18 to 55 years old and in good general health. The testing requires that donors fill out health questionnaires and provide blood samples.

Teachers have solicited local organizations for contributions to cover the cost of the testing so donors don't have to pay. A bake sale is also being held.

Smithson hopes to raise about $4,500, which will be matched with funds from the National Marrow Donor Program. The cost for each test is $45.

Donations of any amount are welcomed from those who cannot or do not wish to participate, she said.

Smithson also said that people who are tested will become part of a national data bank of potential marrow donors. Currently, about 9,000 people are registered with the databank to seek a match, said Chuck Pruitt, recruitment coordinator for the American Red Cross, Southern California region.

Johnson said there are many risks in undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

"The biggest one is rejection," she said, adding that she is willing to take the risks to save her life.

Johnson said it is heartwarming that the teachers are willing to hold the testing drive.

In tears, Johnson said she is moved "to have the outpouring and the caring."

Johnson said that the disease has devastated her life but that teaching helps to keep her alive.

"There's a reason to get up," she said.

"They know I'm sick," she said of her students, again wiping away tears. "But I don't know how much they understand."

But her students do understand and praised Johnson for being a good teacher.

"She's a teacher who we'll always remember because we learn a lot of stuff from her," said third-grader Brian Marks, 10. "She's made a difference in our life . . . and we just want her to know she's done a good job."

Classmate Michelle Staggs, also 10, said Johnson is a teacher she respects and wishes was not sick.

"We just want her to know that she made the right choice to be a teacher--she's one of the best teachers here."

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