Walt Whitman cross country and track runner Ben Lesser is fighting acute myeloid leukemia — and he has a hurdle to get past.
He needs a bone marrow transplant, but he doesn’t have a match in the nationwide Be The Match Registry. Family members have been checked, too, without success, said Kelly Fischer, who is Lesser’s dad’s significant other.
The first round of chemotherapy worked, but it’s not a permanent fix, said Fischer, who has known Ben since he was 6. He just turned 18.
“The match is a lifesaving bone marrow transplant,” she said.
People ages 18-44 who meet the health requirements can sign up at bethematch.org for free and do a cheek swab to see if they are a match for someone who needs a bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell donation. The majority of donors are ages 18-44, but those ages 45-60 can join for $100.
If someone from the registry is found to be an ideal donor for a patient, the healthy person’s bone marrow will regenerate after the procedure, said Allan Lesser, Ben’s dad. He said aside from the person’s time, there’s no cost to the donor and it’s also a safe procedure.
Someone who has Filipino or Caucasian European backgrounds or who is Jewish may have a chance to be a match for Ben, Allan said.
And finding a match is more than just ethnicity. A Be The Match Registry video states that seven out of 10 patients will not have a family member who is a close match.
“It only takes one,” Allan said. “One match.”
And if someone joins the registry and isn’t a match with Ben, they may be a match for someone else in need, he said.
Whitman cross country and track coach Steve Hays, along with high school students and former students, are spreading the word about signing up for the Be The Match Registry.
The efforts go beyond Ben’s teammates. There will be a table for this cause at Walter Johnson’s Burrito Mile on Feb. 29.
The Burrito Mile will take place starting at 1 p.m. at Tilden Middle School and is a fundraiser for Pennies for Patients, which benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Jenna Goldberg, a senior at Walter Johnson who runs cross country and track and is also a leadership member at the school, knows Ben through running.
“Of course we are going to help out and do anything that we can to spread awareness,” Goldberg said.
Jake Marks, who is also a Walter Johnson senior runner and friend of Ben’s, connected with Goldberg after asking Hays how he could help.
He signed up for the registry and got a friend to do so, too.
Goldberg was happy to help, even though she isn’t old enough to sign up for the registry.
“I just really hope that we find a match,” Goldberg said.
Ben Rumsfeld and Aaron Bratt, who ran cross country and track with Ben Lesser and now run for Denison University and Haverford College, respectively, are both friends with him and signed up for the Be The Match Registry.
Rumsfeld described Ben as a kind person and “caring soul.” And Bratt mentioned his politeness.
Hays said Ben is a “happy-go-lucky kid.”
“Everybody likes him,” Hays said.
Ben has been one of Whitman’s top runners and was the sole senior on this year’s cross country team, Hays said.
Allan said Ben loves running and ran not only as part of his teams but in the summer, too. He’s also met great people through the sport.
“He’s found a very congenial group of individuals that have become a bedrock of his friendship and a foundation,” Allan said.
Hays said Ben ran cross country this past fall but wasn’t feeling well toward the end of the season. He made the indoor track team but decided to take the season off because of how he was feeling.
Fischer said in January, Allan took Ben to the pediatrician for hip pain and what looked like a rash. In the middle of the night, after the doctor called about blood test results, Ben’s mom took him to the hospital.
Allan said Ben received great care at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and he was moved to Children’s National because that hospital has a pediatric bone marrow transplant program.
The timeline for Ben needing to get the bone marrow transplant is about 30-60 days, Allan said, and it takes some time to get set up as a donor, too.
Allan said Ben was active and healthy, and it is unknown why he became afflicted with this cancer. The type he has is aggressive.
“If it can happen to Ben, it can happen to anybody,” Allan said.
Ben has also needed platelet donations as he gets treatment, and people can help by donating platelets, Fischer said. She said they can’t be donated to a specific person, but they will help someone who needs them.
“It really does mean a lot,” she said.
Children’s National has a blood donor center where people can donate platelets, and there are other donation locations in the region, too.
Ben is persevering and focusing on smaller chunks of time like he would with running, Fischer said. And on a recent weekend, when Fischer wasn’t able to visit him in the hospital because she had a cold, Ben texted her to ask how she was feeling.
“He’s just an incredibly thoughtful and kind person, even when he’s going through something as substantial as this,” she said.