Monday, November 26, 2007

A 10-year-old boy's Christmas wish: 'I just want to live'

Sunday, November 25, 2007



PEORIA - At this time of year, when children are preparing their list of Christmas wishes for toys and games, Ismael Mendez has only one plea: "I just want to live."
The 10-year-old is looking for a miracle or, better yet, a hero who is willing to step forward and give him a bone marrow donation.

About a month ago, Ismael, a fifth-grader at St. Mark School, was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, a congenital blood disease. The disease causes bone marrow failure, which means the body does not produce enough blood cells and often leads to cancer. The young boy's best chance of survival is a bone marrow transplant.

His best chance of having a perfectly matched donor was his 6-year-old sister, Leslie. However, when her blood was checked to see if it matched her brother's, she, too, was found to have Fanconi anemia.

"She is OK now, but not very long," the children's father, Ismael Mendez Sr., said in halting English. While both children speak English well, an adult cousin, Maria Flores, acted as the family's spokeswoman.

Children with Fanconi anemia typically start showing symptoms between ages 7 and 9, said Pam Eigsti, who is with the National Marrow Donor Program Heart of America Donor Center based in Morton.

Both Ismael's parents, Maricruz and Ismael Mendez Sr., are carriers of the disease but do not have the disease. The Mendez family, originally from Mexico, has been living in the United States for 18 years, moving to Peoria two years ago for the lower cost of living.

A year ago, young Ismael began having health problems. He would tire quickly and bruise easily. His parents took him to a doctor, who discovered that the boy's blood platelet count was extremely low and tested him for Fanconi anemia. He began receiving blood transfusions every three months.

"His blood count is falling rapidly, and soon blood transfusions are not going to be enough," Flores said. "So we're trying to find a bone marrow match quickly."

Because the body is not producing enough blood cells, patients cannot fight infection and often develop cancer, especially acute myelogenous leukemia - typically an adult form of leukemia - at a very early age.

The best treatment for the disease is a bone marrow transplant.

Last week, a bone marrow registration drive took place at Friendship House on Madison Street. While anyone can join the National Bone Marrow Registry Donor Program, in this instance the chances of a match for Ismael are much higher among the Hispanic population. Another drive is scheduled for Monday at the UAW Hall in East Peoria.

At Friendship House, about 100 people came forward to sign up for the drive, Eigsti said. A prior drive was held in Chicago a few weeks ago, organized by Flores.

"We had a pretty good turnout," Eigsti said. "And in Chicago we registered about 300 people."

While the immediate need is for Ismael, five other children in Illinois have been identified with Fanconi anemia and could be helped by the drive, she said.

"I'm told that Leslie has it, too, and she is going to need it (the transplant) pretty soon," Eigsti said.

Meanwhile, Ismael waits.

Like any child his age, he likes basketball and playing with friends. His St. Mark teacher Julie Craghead says he has a good-natured disposition: "He is the sweetest kid, just always smiling."

Although he and his sister have their differences sometimes, Ismael says, "Leslie is a good sister."

Ismael also serves as an altar boy at St. Mary's Cathedral, where his family attends church.

"It's for God, I like doing it," he said.

Catharine Schaidle can be reached at 686-3290 or

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