Despite Leukemia, Saint Leo Alumna Keeps on Kicking
Read about Jasmine Johnson, a Saint Leo University alumna and soccer player who has battled leukemia for 10 years and hopes for a bone marrow transplant.
Dealing with a leukemia diagnosis is tough for anyone. But having to manage the disease for a decade is quite a tall order.
Jasmine Johnson, who graduated from Saint Leo University in 2012, has been up for this challenge since 2009.
Originally from Baltimore, Md., Johnson and her family flocked south to Florida when she was just four years old. The 33-year-old is the eldest of four, including one brother and two sisters.
She discovered her love for soccer at age 12. In 2004, she enrolled at the University of Florida and got to play on the Gators women's soccer team. Injuries, however, sidelined her and temporarily put a halt to her college soccer career.
"When I was in high school, I tore my ACL," she says. "My mom's insurance couldn't pay for surgery, so I just kept playing through the injury. I finally had surgery on it when I was at UF, but then my other knee started acting up. It was pretty demanding playing in the SEC, and I wanted to find another place where I could play but that wouldn't cause quite as much wear and tear on my body."
It was her continual involvement in soccer that ultimately led her to Saint Leo University after being out of college for a few years.
"I was part of a semipro team in Tampa," she explains. "We were playing against some of the local schools and played Saint Leo one time. Our coach said I should talk with the Saint Leo coach. It was Ged O'Connor back then. He said he would find money for me and a spot on the Saint Leo women's soccer team."
She received a partial soccer scholarship and enrolled in 2009.
"My goal was to be a college soccer coach," she says. "At the time, there weren't very many coaching courses or programs out there, so I had to find something that could relate to this type of career. I felt like a psychology degree was a great choice because when you're coaching young people who are becoming adults, you're more than just a coach on the field to them. They might come to you for personal or emotional support as well, and you can have a major influence on them as both athletes and individuals."
She lived on campus during all three years at Saint Leo. Two of her roommates, Aija Bent-Trinder and Malloree Enoch, were a huge help to her pushing through her health struggles.
"We experienced so much together," she recalls. "We were always there for each other during our hardships. In fact, the two of them still reach out to me to see how I'm doing."
Johnson says she could not have made a better decision than coming to Saint Leo to finish her higher education.
"When I started at Saint Leo, it was a huge eye-opener. The classes were so much smaller. The professors knew everyone's names, and I knew most of the students' names in my classes. For me, it was so much better to be in that kind of an atmosphere. It really felt like a family."
To her, Saint Leo's core value of community rings true because of the community support she has received over the years and how she continues to reach out to others in hopes of raising money for a bone marrow transplant.
She wrapped up her bachelor's in psychology from Saint Leo in 2012.
She was first diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2009 just as the soccer season was getting underway.
"The first thing I noticed was that I didn't have any recovery or stamina," she recalls. "After the games were over, I would just sit on the field because I couldn't even get up and walk off the field. Shortly after that, I started feeling completely drained with extreme fatigue, and then I was getting severe migraines that lasted 24 hours."
Trainers in the athletics department recommended she get blood work done. A few days later, she was in class and got a phone call from trainer Barb Wilson.
"She told me I needed to get my blood work results right away. For a second, I wondered if there was something seriously wrong."
When she got to the training room, she was informed that her white count was 232, which is an extremely high number. Because of this, the doctors thought she might have leukemia.
"I honestly said 'no' and walked out of the training room. I went back to class, grabbed my bag, went outside the Abbey and started crying. My grandma had passed away of leukemia, so that was the only knowledge I had of this disease. I saw firsthand how she went downhill"
Despite having limited health insurance, one of the assistant coaches, Annie Hamel, was able to get her an appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
"The doctor explained leukemia and all of its effects to me and then told me I couldn't play soccer anymore. At the time, that was the biggest blow of all because of how much the game meant to me. I think I was actually more upset that I couldn't play than that I had leukemia."
She was finally able to get on a patient assistance program and found a connection to someone who worked for a pharmaceutical company. She started on a medication that typically costs $4,000 per month.
"It's been an up-and-down roller coaster ride with my insurance situation, the doctors and the different medications I've been on," she confides.
The medications she has been on have improved her white count numbers, but they are not preventing new cancer cells from growing.
"I'm not feeling sick right now, but I'm not really getting better, either, in terms of the leukemia."
While dealing with her health situation, Johnson has continued to work at several hospitality jobs. On the soccer front, she has worked for the Tampa Dynamo FC for two years and is about to embark on her third season. She has served as the head coach of several youth girls' teams.
"I'm responsible for organizing training sessions, creating schedules for each season, managing game situations and providing both emotional and psychological support to the girls. Overall, I teach them how to be respectful, goal-oriented and kind-hearted."
Her ultimate goal is to be the club director of a women's soccer program.
"I think it's so important for young girls to have women they can look up to," she says.
Johnson is now seeking a bone marrow transplant, a procedure she says would essentially cure her of the leukemia. Currently, the closest person who could provide her bone marrow that could possibly help is her mom, but she is only a half-match for what Johnson needs.
"As a minority, it's also harder to find a match. So, I want to push for everyone out there to get into the registry."
She says if she can find a match, her insurance would pick up 80 percent of the cost of the transplant. That means she'd be on the hook for 20 percent of what is typically a very costly procedure.
HELP JASMINE: Check out the GoFundMe page for Jasmine Johnson to help support her in her quest to get a bone marrow transplant. She also recommends everyone sign up to be part of the registry on Be the Match.
Plus, she is holding an event called "Jasmine's Jog for a Match" on Saturday, July 27, 2019 at 9 a.m. at the Summerfield Soccer Complex 11942 Big Bend Road in Tampa. The event can be found on this Facebook page with more details
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Jasmine Johnson and Saint Leo University athletics and are used with permission.