Joshua Conley of Standish is a tough kid, so when he started having recurring cold symptoms when he was 9, his mother figured he would fight off whatever was afflicting him.

But Josh didn’t recover, and when he began to have chest pains and breathing difficulties, a hospital X-ray revealed a fist-sized lymphoma tumor.

Thanks to a bone marrow transplant from a student in the Las Vegas area, Josh beat cancer and is now a sturdy 14-year-old who’s poised to join the Bonny Eagle High School lacrosse team.

On Saturday, he and his donor, Aaron Vilhauer, will appear together at a bone marrow drive at Standish Town Hall that has been organized by the Conley family.

The two hope to recruit donors who can give the gift of life to people with lymphoma.

“I didn’t think much of it when I signed up at a local bone marrow drive,” said Vilhauer, “but when it was done I realized how important being a donor is.”

Lymphoma is a cancer that attacks the lymphocyte cells in the body’s immune system. Bone marrow transplants, relatively simple surgical procedures, have been effective treatments.

Yet they can be dangerous, because the patient’s bone marrow must be destroyed before the operation, depleting an integral part of the immune system.

“The patient is very weak and their immune system is very, very weak after the donation,” said Flora Mendoza, a donor recruitment coordinator for DKMS, a New York-based organization that is the world’s largest bone marrow donor center. “Their immune system takes months to recover.”

Josh had his transplant in 2007. The procedure was successful, but he had to remain indoors and in isolation for nearly the entire 2007-08 school year.

“For someone being so young, you’re forced to think and act like a grownup,” said his mother, Martha Conley. “He missed out on a lot of things.”

Josh is now healthy and looking forward to the lacrosse season next spring. He said he is also determined to succeed academically.

“It really bugs me if I’m not doing well in a class, and I’ll do anything to get better,” he said. “I think that my sickness gave me a lot of determination and willpower.”

While his resolve helped him through the ordeal, he will never forget the help he got from Vilhauer, who’s now 22.

“He is an awesome guy, just a really awesome guy,” said Josh.

Vilhauer of Pahrump, Nev., said the transplant made him happy and helped him to focus on his life at a time when he was unsure of his future.

“I felt great afterwards, and it motivated me to get on with my life and apply to college,” he said.

Vilhauer stressed how important and easy it was to become a donor.

Potential donors provide a swab of cells from inside their cheeks and their marrow type is entered into a national registry hosted by DKMS.

If a match is made, a prospective donor can elect to undergo a short procedure in which a small amount of bone marrow is extracted from the hip bone with a needle.

Another, less invasive procedure involves using an intravenous needle to extract blood and then run it through a machine that extracts stem cells.

“It was nothing. I was just a bit sore and stiff,” Vilhauer said of the hip extraction method.

He said he is looking forward to recruiting donors at Saturday’s bone marrow drive, and he is especially excited to see Josh.

“He’s just a great kid,” Vilhauer said.

Staff Writer Max Monks can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

[email protected]


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