A little girl pushed through the doors of the JOANN fabrics store in York, Pennsylvania, on a sunny Saturday lugging a big bag with an old sewing machine inside.
The store manager noticed her right away. “Oh my gosh, she was so excited,” Tiffany Miller recalled.
Ten-year-old Stella was there to take a sewing class, her first. She has big dreams of becoming a fashion designer in Paris when she grows up.
More than that, Stella had something to celebrate. That she was getting to grow up at all.
‘Rarest of the rare’
Stella was 4 in early November 2016 when she complained she was cold, tired and her legs hurt. Her pediatrician found nothing wrong.
But on Thanksgiving, with their house in Maryland full of people, kids running around and playing, Stella curled up in her mom’s lap, crying.
“That’s when I thought, ‘If everything was right on the outside, something could be wrong internally,’” her mom, Crystal, a nurse, said.
Lab tests showed Stella’s red blood cell count was low. At a local hospital, a bone marrow biopsy didn’t show anything definitive. The hematologist sent a sample to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for help.
On Dec. 16, 2016, the results came back. Stella had acute megakaryoblastic leukemia, or AMKL, a rare form of the blood cancer acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
“The rarest of the rare,” Crystal said. A poor prognosis. “It was gut wrenching.”
The day before Stella was scheduled to start treatment, her dad, Dustin, asked the local oncologist how many cases like hers he’d treated. His answer: none.
Stella was referred to St. Jude, where staff had treated Stella’s type of leukemia and their research has helped pioneer how the world treats childhood leukemia.
“When we arrived at St. Jude,” Crystal said, “that was the first time we felt hope.”
No slowing Stella down
Stella received one round of chemotherapy and, a month later, a second.
“She responded very well to the treatment,” Crystal said. Stella went into remission, meaning there was no sign of her cancer.
But because of the high risk of relapse, Stella needed a bone marrow transplant.
Neither her parents nor sister, Nora, then just 2, were matches. But there was a near-perfect match on the international bone marrow donor registry.
Stella was admitted to the transplant unit at St. Jude on April 2, 2017, for a third round of chemotherapy. Ten days later, she received the donor cells.
Her doctor warned Stella likely would be weak and nauseous. But Stella did yoga on her bed, drove a remote-control car around the transplant unit, and ran along the hallways towing an IV pole with four bags of medicine dangling from it.
“Slow down, slow down,” her parents called after her.
There was no slowing Stella down.
‘I love St. Jude’
Her long blond hair grew back dark and curly. She painted and did crafts. Her blood type, A negative before the transplant, now was O positive, the same as her donor.
After seven months at St. Jude, Stella got to go home.
She would return for checkups, monthly at first and then every three months, six months and yearly.
“I love St. Jude,” Stella said. “That’s all I need to say, that I love it, and it’s a wonderful place.”
Stella went back to school, and her family picked up life where they’d left off, going boating, crabbing and camping in their motorhome.
Stella wasn’t in the clear. Not yet.
Not until July when she went for her five-year checkup. Staying in remission for five years after treatment is an important milestone.
Stella’s tests were clear.
“It means I’m cured,” Stella said. “That’s what they called ‘cured.’”
It was what the family was waiting for, Dustin said. Crystal asked Stella what she wanted to do to celebrate. Stella didn’t hesitate to think about it.
She wanted to take a sewing class.
Craft connects people
That day, July 16, the store manager, Miller, escorted Stella and her mom to the classroom inside the JOANN store and introduced them to the instructor, Sam Wright.
There was just one other student, a woman also new to sewing.
Wright showed Stella how to set up her sewing machine and then thread the bobbin and needle, a tricky maneuver for little fingers. Stella got it on the third try.
The sewing machine was old, given to Crystal by her mother-in-law when she and Dustin married 20 years ago. It had sat in a closet ever since.
Stella told Wright she was taking the class to celebrate being cancer-free. The family had returned from St. Jude just the night before.
As a JOANN employee, Wright knew about St. Jude. Since 2017, JOANN has raised more than $4 million for St. Jude, asking employees and customers to donate and support other efforts benefitting St. Jude.
“I thought it was awesome that she chose to come for a sewing class to celebrate,” Wright said. “I got to be the lucky person to teach her.”
Wright showed Stella how to feed fabric through the humming machine, the needle moving like lightning, her small foot on what Wright calls the “gas pedal.”
“She had no fear,” Wright said. Stella listened intently and asked questions, working steadily to make a throw pillow with fabric printed with candy.
“Miss Sam showed me everything,” Stella said. “I really loved it.”
Miller peeked through the doorway each time she passed the classroom.
“Every time I did, Stella was just glowing,” Miller said. “She looked so happy.”
After the two-hour class, Wright gave Stella patterns to make alphabet-shaped pillows, so she could practice sewing curves and corners. She encouraged Stella’s dream of becoming a fashion designer.
She told Stella, “You’ve just got to keep going after what you want. This is a good way to start.”
One child lost, one saved
Wright tidied the classroom and then found Miller to let her know she was done for the day. She told Miller about Stella.
Miller didn’t have to imagine what Stella and her family went through. She had lived it.
Miller was 8 years old in 1985 when her 4-year-old brother Stevie was diagnosed with leukemia. He was so sweet, Miller remembered, even giving up his favorite toy if another child wanted it.
Her family lived in Wisconsin, and Miller traveled with Stevie and her mom to hospitals in Seattle and Chicago for treatment. Despite chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Stevie died in 1986.
The day Stella came in for the sewing class was Stevie’s birthday. Maybe that was why Miller had been so drawn to the little girl. “She was so full of life,” Miller said.
Miller was touched by Stella’s story: “This is where she chose to come to celebrate!” It made employees’ efforts to raise money for St. Jude even more meaningful.
Miller was in tears when she called her district manager to ask if she could reimburse Stella’s class fee of $30. She asked if there was more they could do for Stella.
Not long after Miller made that call, a big box from JOANN arrived for Stella at her house. Inside was fabric, scissors, a sewing box and other supplies.
“It was really, really cool of them!” Stella said. Then something even cooler happened.
As part of its partnership with St. Jude, JOANN sells fabric featuring artwork by St. Jude patients online with $1.50 of each yard sold donated to St. Jude.
Stella got her own fabric. It features a design from a painting Stella did at St. Jude in 2018, an abstract of squares and hearts in blues and purples with a splash of green on a white background.
“I was surprised that they actually did that,” Stella said. Her first foray into fashion design.
Crystal ordered four yards of Stella’s fabric to make curtains for her bedroom.
‘My American girl’
The family had a party, too, and invited friends and family so Crystal and Dustin could thank them for their love and support. One guest made an appearance on a video call to surprise Stella.
“We have one special person we’d like to really thank,” Crystal announced. And then there on the makeshift screen made with a bedsheet was Benjamin, a big balloon in the shape of a number five behind him.
“Mr. Benni!” Stella squealed.
“My American girl,” he said. That’s what he calls her. Benjamin, a teacher in Germany, was Stella’s bone marrow donor.
In the United States, people must wait a year before finding out the identity of their bone marrow donor. In Germany, the wait is two years.
After Stella’s transplant, Crystal wrote a thank-you note to the donor, not knowing his name and not including theirs, but she traced the outline of Stella’s hand so the donor would know it was a child.
After two years, Crystal could email him directly, sending pictures and updates. Benjamin told her he’d signed up on his college campus to be a donor, never expecting anything would come from it.
After Stella’s initial transplant, Benjamin donated again for follow-up infusions.
“He’s our angel,” Crystal said.
Life worth celebrating
Stella sews on the machine now set up in her bedroom. She watches tutorials online and makes dresses for her dolls and throw pillows.
“I like to sew a lot,” Stella said. “I think it’s relaxing. I don’t know why. It’s just fun.”
She drapes her mom with material and belts it. For herself, she altered a yellow dress, gluing on felt to make it look like the one the character Pepa wears in Disney’s “Encanto” movie.
“If you make it, it’s a lot better than buying,” Stella said. It’s a way for her to express herself, choosing the colors and style.
Stella has big plans. “I want to grow up and be a fashionista in Paris,” she said. She’s confident she’ll do it.
That’s worth celebrating.