Claire Percival is a warrior.
Her husband says so, as would anyone who hears her story.
The Sarnia native had the grit to excel in track and field when she was in high school at Northern. Later, she found the mental and physical discipline to win the Canadian Olympic steeplechase trials while running for Penn State University.
But it was while she was attending graduate school at the University of British Columbia that she faced her biggest challenge.
Percival was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2009 at the age of 22. She immediately moved back to Sarnia where she had the support of family, including parents Larry and Julie and brothers Graham and Ryland. She began chemo just days after her diagnosis, followed by radiation.
“A month later, I was in remission,” she said. But her Olympic hopes were dashed and her worries were far from over.
Doctors found an abnormal chromosome indicating she was likely to relapse without a stem cell transplant.
The search for a match began and Percival’s immediate family was tested knowing only about 25% of people in need of stem cell transplants have family matches.
Against the odds, her brother Ryland was a near perfect match and agreed to the procedure.
“It’s a nerve-wracking experience but we were lucky to find a match that gave Claire the best chance to survive,” said Ryland, an educational assistant at Lansdowne School.
The science has come a long way, he said.
“A stem cell transplant is not as invasive as it used to be.”
He was hooked up to two IVs, one to extract his blood, another to return it once the stem cells were removed with a centrifuge machine.
His sister was given Ryland’s stem cells the next day and the family waited for results while she lay in isolation at London’s Health Sciences Centre, her immune system all but gone.
There was no change for days and worry set in, said her mom Julie. But 12 days after the transplant, Percival finally had a white blood cell count. She never looked back.
“I’m stubborn and I wanted to get right back into everything,” said Percival, now 32, married and living in State College, Pennsylvania where she is a special ed teacher.
In fact, 100 days after her transplant, she was off to Croatia.
“I just love travelling,” she explained. Then it was back to grad school, this time in Pennsylvania where she met her husband Connor Kilian Weigand, a former Broadway dancer who has devised a unique fundraiser in Sarnia for Canadian Blood Services and Be The Match.
Be The Match is a global leader in bone marrow and stem cell transplantation and research.
“Not all families and patients are as lucky as Claire and find a match within the family,” he said. “At least 70% in need of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant have to look outside their family.” Claire’s family hopes to encourage more people to agree to a simple swab to see if they could be potential donors and join the registry.
Kilian Weigand is instructor and executive director of a non-profit arts organization called The Performing Arts School of Central Pennsylvania. A group of his former students, who are now with professional companies, have collaborated with young professionals finishing their degrees in dance performance. Together, they are known as Boundless Bodies Contemporary Ballet and will perform an evening of contemporary dance at The Imperial Theatre.
“All the dancers know Claire and want to raise money and awareness for the causes she cares about,” he said.
The benefit will be held on First Friday July 5 and incorporate an after party open to the public at Alt Space, where tickets will be $10 at the door.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: New Beginnings – A Benefit for Canadian Blood Services and Be The Match.
WHEN: 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday, July 5.
WHERE: Imperial Theatre, 168 Christina St.
TICKETS: Adults – $31; Seniors – $26; Students – $21. At The Imperial Theatre box office (519-344-7469) or online at www.imperialtheatre.net.