Mary Lumapas is in her third year studying cell and molecular biology at the University of South Florida, but, because of health problems, she’s a sophomore.
You see, for most of her life, the 21-year-old from Lecanto has been battling cancer.
She’s been fighting these diseases since she was five years old, and it took a toll on her - first taking her left kidney and lower left lung lobe and causing her to need a bone marrow transplant.
That transplant, when she was 13, had complications. First, she was in isolation for over four months. Then, an infection meant her right kidney ended up needing to be removed as well.
But Lumapas persevered, eventually becoming healthy enough to graduate from high school and begin attending USF in 2013 with the goal of going to medical school.
“I always wanted to be a doctor and I kept up with my school all this time and all my nurses and doctors and so many people put so much work into my care to keep me healthy and alive,” Lumapas said. “To give up is just so disrespectful and when so many people have done so much work to give you these opportunities and so, I’m not about to do that.”
Unfortunately, as college started, her problems returned.
“My first semester here, I was already in renal failure and so that was hard to do just because of the swelling it would cause in my legs," Lumapas said, adding that it made walking very difficult.
Then, when she went home for her first winter break, her mother - who had been Lumapas' primary caregiver - was in the final stages of her own years-long battle with ovarian cancer.
“And I didn’t take good care of myself, because I was taking care of her," Lumapas said, breaking down. "And I went back to school because I promised her that I would go back to school because she didn’t want anything to happen to her to keep me from continuing on with what I was doing, so I wanted to make sure she knew that I was going back to school.”
Lumapas had been struggling to breathe during this time. After a late night phone call to her doctor shortly after returning to school, she ended up being hospitalized with pneumonia.
While she was in the hospital, her mother died.
“The last time I talked to my mom was a FaceTime conversation, and I told her that I loved her and not to worry about me because I’ll be fine and I’ll miss her, but I love her,” Lumapas said. Her illness meant she couldn't attend her mother's funeral.
After being released from the hospital, Lumapas kept going to school while receiving nightly dialysis treatments.
But a discussion one morning over breakfast with her roommate, USF Student Government Senate President Kristen Truong, put another option on the table.
“She’s like, I really want to start a campaign to find a kidney and the first thing that came to mind, was, let’s do it,” Truong said.
So they took their idea – which they called “Share Your Spare” – to a number of organizations in which Lumapas is a member, including the university’s Pre-Med American Medical Student Association and the USF Honors College.
While many kidney donations are “directed donations,” where a donor and recipient know each other, there’s also “altruistic living donation,” where someone offers a kidney without designating who it goes to. That’s the route “Share Your Spare” encourages people to take.
“Living kidneys are better than cadaver kidneys and I need one and here I am," Lumapas said. "Like if you wanna do this, here’s a person.”
The campaign started last summer with a Facebook page. In addition, students handed out flyers and left catchy messages in chalk on sidewalks around campus, like "Roses are red, violets are blue, I need a kidney, have you got two?"
“And that’s when people came forward and were like ‘Hey, I’d like to get tested’ and then one of those people actually matched,” Lumapas said.
That’s not an easy thing to do – there are a number of tests to determine compatibility, including blood typing, tissue typing and cross-matching to make sure the recipient’s body won’t attack the new kidney.
It was a great moment, not just for Lumapas, but for Truong – who’s like a sister to her.
“And I just remember she told me, and she knows that I don’t cry very often and I started crying,” Truong said.
There was one more person to tell as well - Lumapas’ father. So they set up an "awards ceremony" at the Honors College, using a fake award for Lumapas as a guise to spring the news on him.
"He was like, 'I’ve been waiting for this for so long, you don’t know, I like pray for this every day!'” Lumapas said.
“Suffice it to say that people were fighting back tears,” added Arnaldo Mejias, Lumapas’ Honors College academic adviser.
“The only thing I can say is Mary has more tenacity than a classroom full of people her age," Mejias added. "I mean, her spirit and her desire to obtain an education and not just an education, but a medical education so that in turn she can help others who have been through similar physical challenges as she has, it’s just an amazing testament to who she is as a person.”
The kidney donor – a “great guy” according to Lumapas – is a man in his thirties who wishes to remain anonymous. The transplant is on hold for the moment because a few more tests are needed.
But Lumapas said she’s thankful for the selfless act of a stranger – the kind of thing she knows her mother would have done if she had been able to.
“They’re doing something," Lumapas said. "They’re taking that step of an action that somebody who loved me so much and devoted her life to try to help me to live the best I could and they’re doing that. (It's) really cool and I’m really grateful for that.”