Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

LUBBOCK — The guests scrubbed their hands with antibacterial soap and strung masks over their noses and mouths.

The graduate had to be rolled down the hallway in a wheelchair, with gleaming tiles under her feet and nurses buzzing about.

Even in this sterile hospital, Anna Thomas smiled in her cap and gown, her blue eyes aglow as friends, family and Texas Tech officials congratulated her.

Anna, 21, received her diploma Saturday on the fourth floor of University Medical Center. About a week ago, she was diagnosed idiopathic aplastic anemia, a potentially fatal condition in which the body stops producing new blood cells.

Aplastic anemia can develop at any age, and in about half of the cases, as with Anna, doctors cannot determine why.

“It’s one of those things,” said Anna, who received a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies. “You just have to keep praying and hoping.”

Anna needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. Her two sisters, 24 and 18, are waiting to see if they are suitable donors. They will know in about two weeks. Until then, Anna needs frequent blood transfusions

“It’s not a sickness you know you will recover 100 percent from,” Anna said. “There’s a lot of questions … a lot of complications.

“The smallest infection,” she said, “could be fatal. It’s scary.”

If she finds a donor, Anna will likely undergo radiation and chemotherapy, as well.

Her father, Russell Thomas — also the mayor of Ennis where Anna grew up — leaned against her hospital window Saturday, behind him a catalog of get-well cards, bright balloons and fresh flowers; through the glass a landscape gray and wet.

“It’s devastating. … You immediately think of the worst and imagine the worst. And pray to God the donor will come,” Thomas said.

Anna’s commencement ceremony was brief. Tech President Jon Whitmore and Dean of the College of Human Sciences Linda Hoover came to the hospital between ceremonies at the United Spirit Arena, where about 2,000 degrees were conferred.

“Anna, we’re sorry you couldn’t be there, so we decided to bring the festivities to you,” Hoover said. “We’re pulling for you and we’re praying for your health to be restored.”

Said Whitmore to the fair-skinned, blonde-haired graduate, with his hand on her shoulder, “Turn your tassel around.

“We’re very, very proud of you. Remember,” he added, “you will be a Red Raider forever.”

Small cupcakes with Double T’s were laid out on a table, but Anna couldn’t eat any. Her boyfriend of about a year and half, James Adams, also a Tech student, wheeled her back to her room.

She looked tired. Beneath her shiny, black gown, her hands shook slightly.

Back in her room, she said the support of the university has touched and overwhelmed her.

“They give me the strength to move forward,” she said.

Anna will be in the hospital for months, doctors say. She cannot wait for her stay to end — her internship at Tech’s Center for Recovery and Addiction has turned into a full-time job. She was hired there as business assistant before she discovered she was so sick.

Nine days ago, her boyfriend urged her to go to the hospital. Prior to that, she just assumed her fatigue was a result of balancing her class load with a full-time internship.

But Saturday wasn’t about being sick.

“It’s one of the most special days of my life. I’m just an ordinary student. I didn’t do anything to deserve (this special ceremony),” Anna said.

A blood drive for Anna will be held in coming days and the search for a bone marrow donor will continue until a match is found, her family said.

To learn more about how to give blood to Anna or to anyone or how to be a bone marrow donor, contact United Blood Service at (806) 797-6804. To learn about the national blood marrow donor program, visit http://marrow.org.

Reprinted with permission from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.