At first glance, Lindsey Meglio doesn’t appear unlike the other college volunteers at MU’s annual Homecoming blood drive.
That is, until the 46-foot tractor trailer adorned with her face and four others pulls into the Hearnes Center parking lot. Inside the trailer is an array of high-tech equipment, including a virtual tour and an inside look at Meglio’s life.
Meglio, a 21-year-old MU senior from Wildwood, is not a celebrity, a supermodel or an up-and-coming rock star. She doesn’t have her own music video, and she hasn’t chased 15 minutes of fame on reality TV.
The broadcast journalism major is a national spokeswoman for the American Red Cross’ “Discover the Gift Inside” campaign. The trailer is one of two mobile museums designed to educate people about blood donation.
While it may seem like a glamorous gig, Meglio didn’t get her face displayed larger-than-life on the trailer by passing an audition or impressing a talent scout; she did it through a combination of suffering, sacrifice and service.
She’s not a paid professional, but a blood donation recipient and a cancer survivor. A living, breathing, miracle kid.
But the real miracle, those close to her say, is not just that Meglio has triumphed over two bouts of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and survived a highly experimental stem cell transplant. The real miracle instead lies in what she has done since then.
For the past eight years, Meglio has been a source of hope and inspiration to thousands nationwide. She and her family have spoken at countless events — from radio and TV programs to auctions, telethons, camps, opening ceremonies and golf tournaments — in an effort to raise awareness and save more lives.
“Once we started realizing how much we could help people, we would never turn down anyone,” Meglio said. “We just wanted to help more.”
Overwhelmed by the number of worthy organizations, the family eventually focused its attention largely on serving Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis where Meglio was treated, the Children’s Miracle Network and the American Red Cross, which provided her with severallife-saving platelet transfusions during her illness.
“If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have Lindsey,” said her mother, Carrie Meglio. “So we’re eternally grateful to these organizations.”
It’s a feeling that Jim Williams, manager of communications for the Missouri-Illinois Red Cross, said is more than mutual.
“Lindsey is responsible for so many people donating blood, which in turn means that she’s responsible for saving a lot of lives,” he said. “She’s helped us tremendously.”
In 1996, Cardinal Glennon selected Meglio to be its Ambassador Child, representing the hospital at all Children’s Miracle Network events. The next year she became one of the network’s official Miracle Kids. Though still a child, it wasn’t long before, she was hosting entire segments of their annual telethon by herself.
Since 2000, the Missouri-Illinois Red Cross has used blood-donation pamphlets that feature Lindsey’s story. In early 2003, she was selected as one of three survivors of life-threatening illnesses to represent the national “Save a Life” tour.
That tour, which was the largest initiative of its kind in Red Cross history, exceeded its goal of generating 3 million donations in just six months. Meglio was also asked to host the tour’s concluding ceremony in Washington late last year.
Lindsey’s ordeal started at age 10, when she began throwing up, losing weight and collapsing from bouts of severe pain. Doctors attributed it to everything from bowel problems to the stress of schoolwork. Her weight dropped to 40 pounds before she was finally diagnosed on her 11th birthday with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymph system.
“When I got diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t even know what cancer was,” Meglio said. “I honestly thought I could get medicine for it. I thought I could take a pill and it would go away.”
But the cancer, which was already in an advanced stage, took nine months to control, and Meglio was in remission less than three months when her previous symptoms returned.
On her 12th birthday, she was told she had tumors in multiple organs, including an inoperable one wrapped around her heart. Even worse, the cancer had spread into her blood. Chances of survival seemed bleak.
Faced with few options, Meglio’s family opted for an autologous (self) stem cell transplant.
Meglio was one of the first in the nation to undergo this procedure, which at that time was highly experimental and required that her own stem cells be extracted and separated from her bone marrow, frozen and then later, after a month of extremely high-dose chemotherapy, re-injected back into her body.
Although slated to be in the hospital for three months, Meglio was released within a month of her transplant.
“They actually said that no kid had ever done that before,” Carrie Meglio said. “They were just kind of dumbfounded.”
Because the high doses of chemotherapy essentially destroyed her immune system, their home had to be continually sterilized. Meglio had to eat specially packaged food, and she could not go outside or have visitors. Her mother home-schooled her for a year, and her father built a window seat in her bedroom so she could communicate with friends through the glass.
When she was finally allowed to go out, Meglio still had to wear a protective mask. To show their support, when they went to the movies together, her friends also donned masks.
“We went to go buy our tickets and the guy was like, ‘Whoa, am I getting robbed?’” Meglio said.
Despite that she is now well past the five-year mark, the general standard for being considered cancer-free, Meglio said she will not use that term. Especially since doctors have told her that the harsh medicines and chemotherapy she received give her a 75 to 90 percent chance of developing other types of cancer in the future.
“I’ll just say I’m in remission,” she said. “I’m off treatment. I will never say I’m cured. I don’t think I ever am cured.”
Life in Remission
While, for many, remission means putting a painful chapter of their life behind them, for Meglio and her family it simply meant sharing that chapter with others on a large scale. What spurred them on, Carrie Meglio said, was the chance to convey to others a message of hope.
“If you look at it scientifically, probably on paper Lindsey shouldn’t be here,” she said. “So miracles do happen and there’s no scientific reason for that. No matter how bad things seem or are, you always have hope. Nobody can take that away from you.”
Gil Engler, executive director of the St. Louis branch of the Children’s Miracle Network, said this optimistic outlook had a profound effect not only on those Lindsey spoke to, but also on those with whom she worked.
“I met Lindsey, and Lindsey changed my life,” he said. “I looked at her and I realized that this is an extraordinary person and I couldn’t treat this organization as a business, which I was. She brought back the heart to me. She inspired me, and that’s why I’m still in this job eight years later.”
Since Meglio came to MU, she has continued to work closely with Cardinal Glennon, Children’s Miracle Network and the Red Cross.
Meglio’s decision to attend MU has also benefited the Red Cross’ outreach efforts. MU is home to one of the world’s largest blood drives. The Homecoming blood drive is today from noon to 8 p.m. and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Hearnes Center.
At this year’s blood drive, even if you don’t get the chance to meet Meglio in person, you can still see her story on video in the mobile museum. But, Williams said, make sure you come prepared.
“Get out the tissue when you hear that one,” he said. “It’s pretty powerful.”