From Helped to Helper

Health, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on June 24, 2001

Once Zak Rossbach won his own life-and-death struggle with aplastic anemia, the 13-year-old turned his energy toward helping others fight the same battle.

I believe in miracles. I AM a miracle! says the 4-foot-10, 68-pound boy. My family and I have had so much help from other people, something inside just keeps telling me I need to give back to others.

Aplastic anemia is a rare, often fatal disease resulting from the failure of the bone marrow to produce enough red and white blood cells or platelets. Bone marrow transplantation is now frequently used for aplastic anemia patients.

Zaks current health is excellent, and hell be considered medically normal on Sept. 30, 2003, the fifth anniversary of his transplant. Hes back to playing soccer, riding his bike, swimming, and doing all the fun things a 13-year-old enjoys, says his mom, Kim.

While awaiting a transplant, Zak grew so weak he could no longer run or kick his soccer ball, though he kept trying. His courage touched the people of Monument, Colo., (pop. 1,305), who helped Zak and his parents, Gary and Kim, any way they could. Among other things, Zaks classmates called him regularly when he had to spend five months at the University of Minnesota Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic in Minneapolis and sent him Christmas, Valentine, and get-well cards.

While recovering from his transplant, Zak spoke about marrow donation at the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis, where he and his family were staying. Then Dave Huddleston, news anchor on WCCO Channel 4, invited Zak to his Minneapolis talk show, where Huddleston revealed he, too, had been a bone marrow donor.

Zak agreed to an emotional meeting with his own donor, Joseph Philipose, a young Missouri law student, on the Montel Williams Show in New York in November of 1999. (Recipients are asked not to meet donors for a year because some recipients dont make it.) About 4,000 people called the show about bone marrow donation, and some 2,100 offered themselves as donors to the National Marrow Donor Program, says Helen Ng, a spokeswoman for the donor program.

Zak clearly had a knack for helping others understand the importance of bone marrow donation and agreed to be a poster child for the Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches Star Night 2000 Celebrity Fundraiser in California. Born in Thailand, Zak was adopted by the Rossbachs when he was 5 years old.

He was then featured in a fund-raising mailer for Make-A-Wish Foundation, which tries to fulfill wishes of critically ill children and which sent him and his family on a cruise.

The National Marrow Donor Program in Minneapolis named Zak as its Young Cancer Survivor of the Year on June 4, 2000. Although aplastic anemia is not a cancer, the award can go to a survivors of any disease treated with marrow transplants. That helped persuade Garys employer, American Airlines, to get involved delivering marrow from donors hospitals to recipients, because the faster bone marrow cells reach their donor, the more likely the transplant will succeed. American is one of five U.S. airlines that now participates in a program to deliver transplant cells quickly. The company also pays the cost of donor tests for employees who want to become donors.

And Zak isnt just working for bone marrow donations. He helped when his friend, 11-year-old Nick Nelson, who suffers from the neurological disease spina bifida, wanted a lift for his wheelchair so his mother wouldnt have to keep hoisting it into the back of the familys van.

Gary suggested Zak turn to his school for help. The Nickels for Nick campaign Zak organized has just presented a $2,000 check to Nicks family for the lift.

Zak spoke recently to a student service club, Serteens, at Lewis Palmer High School in Monument. Principal Al Duhan says Zak drew himself up to his full height, spoke into the microphone, and soon had everyone in the auditorium laughing and crying.

The kids who listened to him say, If that fifth-grader can work that hard for his friend, Nick, then we can work to help others too.

And so they did, and they are.