A DuBois native who received a shocking diagnosis this past summer has since received a vast amount of love and support from the town he calls home.
James Lee said it all started with a bad migraine July 20, which is when he found out his white blood-cell count was over 100,000. Doctors told him they suspected leukemia, and sent him to UPMC Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he had a bone-marrow biopsy and blood work done.
Lee was diagnosed with CML, Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, which he found out was “far progressed” and in the “blastic” phase, his sister, Wendy Swope, said.
Lee spent a lot of time in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy treatments, blood transfusions and spinal taps, he said. He’s had about two weeks in between each treatment to spend at home.
Although there is a history of cancer in the family, there has never been leukemia, Swope said. Her brother will need a bone-marrow transplant in the future, for which she’ll be in the first on the list to be tested.
Medical staff at Shadyside told Lee he “broke a record” for having the most visitors come in within five days, he said. He recalls getting “so many gifts,” including nerf guns, cards and balloons and a large stuffed animal. The walls were covered with cards, Swope added.
“I would pile things in the car with my family when they would come and visit, for them to take back home,” Lee said.
Lee was limited on the number of visitors he could receive when he returned home, because of his suppressed immune system, he said, but that didn’t stop the town of DuBois from showing up in several ways.
Lee is a chef at The Gateway Cafe in DuBois, and his coworkers have had his back the entire time, he says. The restaurant is hosting a barbecue-chicken benefit for him Sept. 29.
There have been several benefits, though, and more are planned, including one at Eastside Sports Bar that raised $2,500, and Barnaroo at the Farm in Reynoldsville that brought in $3,147.
Swope says several people shaved their heads the night of the Eastside fundraiser, simply in support of Lee during his treatments.
The Falls Creek Eagles #965 will host a fundraiser with food, drinks, raffles and music Sunday, Oct. 20, and The Hitching Post will stage an event in November.
The slogan for Lee in his fight is “#GingerStrong.” Swope has also started selling T-shirts, cups, bracelets and other items.
People will often drop off donations, such as baskets for Chinese auctions, right to the Swope home. Many have made monetary donations to the “Support James Lee “gingerstrong” Facebook page, including an anonymous donor of $950, Swope said.
Super Sub and Six Pack of DuBois donated Lee’s favorite wings, and were also seen sporting #GingerStrong T-shirts. Gateway Cafe employees wear the shirts two days a week, and sell them, too, in support of their coworker.
The shirts are black with orange writing, in light of September being Leukemia Awareness Month.
Through it all, Lee says he never expected such backing from his hometown, and it’s more than he ever could’ve asked for.
“It’s a lot to take in, that people in this town care so much about me,” Lee said. “I want them to know how much I appreciate them.”
It’s inspiring, Swope says, how much DuBois loves her brother, and even the support he gained in Pittsburgh. She recalls when Lee was staying in Pittsburgh and he walked to Giant Eagle to buy a ribeye steak, and the nurses there rallied together to find him an “Instapot” to cook it in.
“The feeling of love is so overwhelming,” Swope says. “I knew he knew a lot of people, but the calls, the texts, food, events — everyone has just come together for him.”
The Facebook page for Lee alone has raised $7,320.
“He is so strong,” Swope said. “There’s no doubt he’s going to battle this, then be back to himself.”
For more information, visit “Support James Lee #gingerstrong” on Facebook.