While shoppers searched for the perfect present for their loved ones, Andrea Bozzi was praying one person can give her something money can't buy - a chance for life.
Bozzi, 48, the daughter of Frances and the late Frank Schilling, of Maze, learned seven months ago that she has leukemia.
"My only chance of survival is a bone marrow transplant," she said. "I'm counting on a complete stranger to come along and save my life."
Karen Miller, left, a 1984 graduate of East Juniata High School, soon will donate her healthy bone marrow cells to her sister,
Andrea Bozzi, who is suffering from leukemia.
But survival now could come at the hands of a family member, doctors say - her younger sister, Karen, who graduated from East Juniata High School in 1984.
The journey from health to hospital happened quickly.
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"I thought I was burning the candle at both ends," said Bozzi, who lives with her husband, John, and their two children in Montgomery County, just outside of Philadelphia.
In June, her family and friends started noticing that Bozzi seemed more tired than usual. Fatigue can be expected of someone who works 12 to 15 hours a day, six days a week.
"I had a head cold I couldn't shake," she said. "I thought I was burning out, so I blew off a lot of my symptoms."
Bozzi couldn't ignore her condition any longer when she woke up in a cold sweat on Father's Day.
"There was a mass in my groin and my neck," she said, and doctors lanced "what they believed was an abscess."
There was no improvement, and her condition worsened. The next day, she woke up with a tight throat.
"They (doctors) thought I was having a reaction to medication. My ob-gyn told me I was pre-menopausal. But something didn't seem right to me," Bozzi said.
By the end of the week, Bozzi and her husband noticed she had a lot of bruises on her body, and she had pain in her back and legs. She returned to the hospital for more blood tests and an MRI.
She returned home at about 2 p.m. and almost immediately received a call from her doctor, who told her to get back to the hospital.
"He said, 'Your white count is out of control,'" Bozzi recalled.
White blood cells fight infection. A healthy person has between 11,000 and 40,000 white blood cells in their body.
Bozzi's white blood cell count was 265,000.
"I knew what was happening," said Bozzi, who has spent all of her adult life in the medical field.
She graduated in 1985 with a degree in radiology, did research in MRI technology and has been in that field ever since, for about 27 years.
"I've always been on the flip side of where I am now," Bozzi said. "I have an in-depth knowledge of what's happening."
But, in the emergency room, the doctors warned her, "What they were going to say would scare me to death," she said. "I have an acute form of leukemia."
The disease brings expected neurological consequences, such as memory lapses, and can lead to a coma.
"I was dangerously close to a problem," Bozzi said.
She was admitted and put on medication to reduce her white blood cell count.
A person's bone marrow makes all their blood cells. In someone who has leukemia, it is as if the marrow "flips a switch and stays in the 'on' position," she explained. "The immature white blood cells get out of control and they crowd out the other blood cells."
This can affect the blood's ability to clot and causes bleeding throughout the body, which led to the bruising that Bozzi and her husband noticed.
The hospital ran more tests to find out what kind of leukemia she had and learned it is AML - acute myeloid leukemia, with a mutation that makes it become resistant to drugs.
"It is a very aggressive kind of leukemia," Bozzi said.
From her diagnosis on June 22, Bozzi spent 42 days in the hospital and was discharged on Aug. 3. Since then, she has been re-admitted several times, has undergone biopsies and tests, and repeatedly drank a new drug that replaces chemotherapy.
"A bone marrow transplant is necessary for my survival," she said.
Typically, doctors seek out a patient's family first, hoping to find a solid match within similar DNA.
Bozzi's brother, Joe, of Thompsontown, did not appear to be a good match. Her sister, Rita, of Maze, was a partial match, but sister, Karen Miller, of Highspire, was found to be an even better match.
Soon after Christmas, Karen will undergo surgery to donate healthy bone marrow to Bozzi.
"I'm elated," Miller said, "to have a chance to possibly save her life."
Their families were devastated to learn of Bozzi's diagnosis.
"I spent days crying," Miller added, when she learned that no one in her family was an exact match.
Doctors use elaborate testing to identify potential matches, but it all starts with a cheek swab to capture DNA. Eventually, matches are ranked according to how many "markers" are identical to those of the patient.
Ideally, a match will have 10 of 10 markers in common. Miller matches for seven of 10 markers with her sister.
"Karen is a hero. Asking someone to go under anesthesia and donate bone marrow for your benefit is beyond what any words can describe. She is giving me a chance," Bozzi wrote on her blog, www.caringbridge.org/visit/andreabozzi/journal, earlier this month.
Miller said her sister is motivated and determined and was so even before her diagnosis.
"She has the strength to pull through with this," Miller said.
On Dec. 26, Bozzi will be admitted to the Fox Chase Cancer Center's transplant floor. She'll undergo four days of total body radiation, Miller said, and the bone marrow transplant will be made on Jan. 3.
"This has been a challenge for my family," Bozzi said. "But you do what you have to do."