When Darick Hemphill finally found a moment to breathe during the whirlwind events of late January 2021, he used the opportunity to write an anonymous note to the blood donor who saved the life of his 14-year-old son.
“The last four days have been the worst of my life,” he wrote.
More than a year later, that’s still true. Those four days in January were filled with unimaginable horrors.
But they’ve been followed by some of the best days of his life, as he’s watched his son fully recover from a life-threatening diagnosis and have an out-of-this-world encounter with an astronaut who was once in his shoes.
It’s all thanks to a blood donor — and the Hemphills now have a deeper appreciation for lifesavers everywhere.
“You don’t realize how important (blood) is to the people that need it,” Darick said. “And you don’t think that you’re ever going to be the person who needs it. You think that will never happen to you, but there we were.”
‘YOUR WHOLE WORLD JUST STOPS’
After weeks of experiencing subtle and strange symptoms, Jackson Hemphill passed out during gym class on January 19, 2021. Darick picked up his son from a Springfield middle school and brought him to the doctor.
COVID-19 and strep tests came back negative, so Jackson went back to school two days later. His parents asked the school to keep him out of gym class that day — they knew something was wrong, they just didn’t know what.
The following morning, Jackson’s nose started to bleed — and would not stop.
The Hemphills called Jackson’s pediatrician’s office to make an appointment, but didn’t hear back until the following day. Since it was now Saturday, the office advised the Hemphills to take Jackson to urgent care.
His mother, Amanda, told the doctor everything Jackson had experienced. Painful bruises. The nosebleeds.
“I saw the look on the doctor’s face change,” Amanda said. “He started telling the nurse to order all of these blood tests. I could tell immediately that he knew something — or suspected something.”
That bloodwork all-but confirmed a much more severe diagnosis.
Jackson likely had a form of leukemia, and he would need to be admitted to the pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
“When you hear that, your whole world just stops,” Darick said. “Everything is just a rush. You’re trying to make sense of it. Is my kid going to live? What’s going on?”
Upon arrival at Mercy Hospital Springfield, another doctor discussed the details of Jackson’s diagnosis. Additional testing was needed to figure out the exact form of leukemia he had, but he would need to be transferred to another hospital that specialized in such treatments. They left the choice up to the Hemphill family but suggested the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis or some facilities in Kansas City.
The Hemphills had heard of St. Jude, so that’s where they decided to go. Within a few minutes, the hospital staff told them that an ambulance had been dispatched from Tennessee and was on its way to pick up Jackson.
‘BLOOD PRODUCTS SAVED HIS LIFE’
With so much information coming at him at once, Darick did not fully understand the direness of the situation. It wasn’t until later that he realized just how fortunate they were to visit that urgent care clinic when they did.
“I was still thinking it was growing pains or something, because it just isn’t possible that your kid could be on death’s door,” Darick said. “It took me a while to even process it. When they said they were going to send an ambulance from Memphis to pick us up, I was like ‘That’s crazy. I could just put him in a car and we can drive down there.’ He wouldn’t have lived. He was that close to a bad outcome.”
A short while later, doctors changed plans. Jackson was too sick to ride by ambulance and would need to be airlifted the following morning. That would allow Mercy Hospital workers to begin treatment immediately.
Sometime that evening, Jackson was given the first of many blood transfusions. The blood came from someone who donated at a Community Blood Center of the Ozarks drive at Mansfield High School one month prior.
Of course, Darick didn’t know that at the time. All he saw was the instant impact of the donation.
Jackson’s skin was no longer pale white. He wasn’t listless and was cracking jokes like normal. The road to recovery was long, but Jackson had taken the first steps. Thanks to a CBCO donor, he was ready to go to St. Jude.
“The blood products immediately helped him feel better and got him stabilized enough so that we could make that trip,” Darick said. “Without those, God, he wouldn’t have made it. There’s just no ifs, ands or buts about it. The blood products saved his life.”
‘IT’S AN INCREDIBLE GIFT’
As Jackson got settled into St. Jude, the Hemphills learned more about what had gone wrong.
Jackson had acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that begins in the bone marrow and affects blood cells. The nosebleed wouldn’t stop because he didn’t have enough healthy platelets, which help the blood form clots.
They knew he would be at the hospital for several months as he underwent chemotherapy.
Darick didn’t have much time to pack a bag before making the trip to St. Jude. But one of the things he made sure to bring was the Thank-The-Donor card that was attached to the blood that Jackson received in Springfield.
“I didn’t have 10 possessions in my name,” Darick said. “I probably had two pairs of shorts or pants and two shirts. And I held onto that card because I wanted to make sure I let the person responsible for it know how much they meant to us.”
The Thank-The-Donor program allows people who receive blood transfusions – or their family members – to send anonymous notes to the people who donated the blood. They never learn the identity of the donor, nor does the donor learn any personally identifiable information about who received the blood they provided.
It’s a way to let the donor know how their blood helped a real person.
Jackson began his chemotherapy treatment on January 27, four days after he was admitted to the pediatric ICU. That day was the first time that Darick had downtime and the opportunity to write the note. He penned it with Jackson sitting by his side, noting how important, immediate and significant the impact of their donation was.
“Had they not done that, we would have been looking at a very, very different outcome and a much longer recovery – if at all – just to get him feeling better so he can function and have enough strength to take on the chemo and fight that,” Darick said. “It’s an incredible gift.”
‘WHAT YOU’RE DOING CHANGES PEOPLE’S LIVES’
Jackson needed countless transfusions during his time at St. Jude, which has its own center for blood donations.
“I can’t tell you how many transfusions he received and just how important blood products were to what we were doing,” Darick said. “There was a blood shortage right when we were down there and so the normal levels where they would give blood transfusions and things like that had been cut in half because they were having a bad ice storm and a bunch of other problems. He was really getting sick before they would allow him to get the blood products — and it really just makes you appreciate it that much more.”
Darick, who had given blood previously, said the experience changed his perspective on blood donations.
“I don’t think I really ever put together how critical it is,” Darick said. “What you’re doing changes people’s lives. There were so many kiddos that we saw along the way that needed those blood products. And we’re at one small hospital. Every single one of those kids, if they wouldn’t have been able to get it, you don’t want to think about what happens.”
Thanks to the medical staff at St. Jude — and dozens of other blood donors — Jackson was able to make a full recovery by the beginning of July. Each blood transfusion gave him the energy needed to get through the day.
“I would wake up and I wouldn’t feel good,” Jackson said. “My platelets would be down or something would be wrong. But we’d go to the doctor for a regular check-up and they’d give me blood and afterwards I would always feel so much better. It was just this little boost of energy and it just makes you feel better. It’s crazy.”
Crazy is also a word Jackson uses to describe the months after he got to leave the hospital.
‘IT WAS VERY INSPIRING’
In September, he got the thrill of a lifetime when he got to witness the launch of the nation’s first all-civilian mission into outer space, which featured a St. Jude employee that was formerly a cancer patient at the hospital.
“It was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been able to experience,” Jackson said.
The employee, Hayley Arceneaux, helped treat Jackson while he was hospitalized. He and several other St. Jude patients got to video chat with Arceneaux during her mission — a story that received national media attention.
Jackson was front-and-center during an eight-minute segment on Today, the NBC morning show, and traveled to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to participate in simulated spaceflight experiences with Arceneaux after she returned to Earth.
WATCH THE SEGMENT HERE:
Arceneaux even gave him one of the mission patches that had been on the spacecraft when it traveled into outer space, which is now one of his most cherished possessions.
“It was very inspiring,” Jackson said. “To see someone who had cancer — and who had beaten cancer — was able to go to space and do these things gave me the thought that if Miss Hayley can do this, I can do that too.”
‘WE WILL ALWAYS BE GRATEFUL’
Best of all, Jackson’s oncologist said during the Today segment that Jackson is expected to lead a full, healthy life. Jackson might even be able to go to space himself one day, should he so desire.
Make no mistake about it. He can hardly wait.
“We’ve hardly explored it,” Jackson said. “Being able to go up there and explore, to be the first to discover something. It’s thrilling. It’s every child’s dream to go up into space and be an astronaut.”
That dream remains possible — all because someone here in the Ozarks gave blood at their local high school.
“You never know when you’re going to get the call that a loved one or you or a family member is going to be sick,” Darick said. “It teaches you to not take things for granted and make sure you’re making the most out of every possible second. And all of that — every single moment that we’ve had since starting this journey — was made possible because some donor took the time to give blood. We wouldn’t have these opportunities and special days where we can just be normal and not even think about cancer. And that’s only because someone was selfless enough to go ahead and donate. We will always be grateful for that.”
Jackson agreed, thanking all of the blood donors who make it possible for children to live their dreams.
“They’re taking the time to help someone that they don’t even know in the first place,” Jackson said. “They don’t even know where it’s going to go. It’s the nicest, most selfless thing anyone could ever do.”
Donating blood with the Community Blood Center of the Ozarks allows more than 40 local hospitals to continue to provide lifesaving treatment to friends, neighbors and loved ones here in our communities. There is no other organization that supplies blood and blood products to these hospitals, who rely exclusively on CBCO donors to help patients like Jackson. What kind of stories will your donation inspire? Click here to find a drive near you.