Gary Smith

After a bone marrow transplant to treat leukemia Gary Smith suffered a stroke resulting from an infection that affected his speech and is now working his way back from that setback. (Rob Ostermaier, Daily Press / July 9, 2011)

Thirteen months after Gary Smith's nightmare began, there is undeniable progress.

The leukemia that attacked his white blood cells and threatened his life is gone. The bone marrow transplant he underwent in December was successful, thanks in large part to a total stranger who was a remarkably accurate match.

But there's another obstacle. In April, Smith developed an infection, a common side effect of transplant surgery when the immune system is weakened. Except this infection attacked his brain and led to a stroke.

So the good news is that he's cancer free. The bad news is that Smith, who once glided so gracefully on the basketball court at Hampton High, remains frail and unable to speak clearly.

But what's another obstacle? Gary Smith, who knew all along he'd beat this, has never lost his hope.

"I'm feeling like a kid in the candy store," he said via email. "I'm just accepting of all the love and prayers I've been receiving. I'm definitely thankful for all the awareness my situation has brought to this issue."

Three days a week, he goes through physical therapy. His family's home in Hampton has a treadmill, so he gets extra work there. Though he cannot speak above a murmur, his parents both see rapid improvement.

"The therapist is always saying how much improvement he makes from one session to the next," said Smith's mother, Priscilla. "Right now, it's his speech. He'll have to have a lot of work with his speech. But he's getting there."

Before his ordeal began, Smith was the picture of health. He wasn't quite the same baller he was at Hampton, where he averaged 21 points a game and was named Daily Press Player of the Year in 2003. But at 6-foot and a cut 170 pounds, he was still the guy no one wanted to check in pick-up games.

In February 2010, he began feeling sluggish. The doctors said it was mononucleosis, but he never felt better. He was told he was fine. Yet he knew he wasn't.

After having his adenoids and tonsils removed in June, Smith was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells. Ninety percent of his bone marrow had leukemic cells — a number so high, he was told, that chemotherapy likely would have no effect.

Yet chemo was his only option. On Sept. 27, Smith was handed a slip of paper that told him the cancer was gone. There were cheers, tears and prayers. But because cancer returns in half of acute lymphoblastic leukemia patients, Smith would need a bone marrow transplant.

Finding a suitable match is never easy, especially for an African-American. His family members were ruled out, so that left the national registry. And only 7 percent of that registry were of his race.

In November, a match was found. And not just any match — as perfect a match as Smith could have hoped for. Doctors told him that of the 10 categories they look for, the donor was a match in all 10.

"That's unheard of," his father, Gary Sr., said.

The transplant was done on Dec. 7 at the VCU Medical Center, and Smith was discharged two weeks later. Because of potential complications, his doctors wanted him within 30 minutes of the hospital at all times. So the family rented an apartment in Richmond, where he celebrated his 26th birthday with his family.

All was going well until April, when Smith began having trouble walking. Maybe that was a side effect of the medicine he was taking for his allergies, he figured. But then he began having speech problems.

His doctors ran some test and concluded it was toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection passed on by animals. Humans generally contact it through cat feces, and up to one-third of the world's population carry the infection. Healthy immune systems are able to fight it off, but Smith's was weakened after the transplant.

The infection reached his brain and caused a stroke. And that's a scary word for anyone.

"Honestly, I didn't know I'd had a stroke," Smith said. "I just knew that something wasn't right since I was so tired."

This set off another roller coaster. At first, doctors told the Smiths that the infection could be fatal. But a day later, they said it wasn't. Smith spent the next two months at the Medical Center. He couldn't walk. He couldn't feed himself.

But gradually, he improved. On June 9, he was able to return to Hampton. His father has seen a dramatic change in his son in the four weeks since.

"Day by day," Gary Sr. said. "When he hit the rehab floor (at the hospital) in mid-May, his improvement picked up. He started going outside and walking around. Once he came home, it's really taken off.

"He's driven to get back to doing the things he was doing before he got sick. The worst is behind him for sure."

The work goes on. Smith does his therapy, and he walks on the treadmill at home. He can't wait to return to his sales/marketing job with Xerox in Richmond and living on his own. His personal target date: Oct. 1.

"Faith in God is all that (has) got me through," he said. "Whenever I hit a dry spot in the recovery process, the focus on God got me through."

He also wants to meet his bone marrow donor. All he knows is that it's a woman from the national registry. In December, if she agrees to it, they can meet. And there will be so many things to say.

"I am so eager to meet my donor it's ridiculous," he said. "I just wanna ask her, does she know that she has saved my life?"