Sawyer shows his silly side even as he fights leukemia

Patient Stories |



This 7-year-old is undergoing a second stem cell transplant to beat back cancer, and his cousin – his “bestie” – is his donor.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

Sawyer Draper is a feisty, funny 7-year-old who has been dealt a rough hand in life.

The first-grader has been in a fight against cancer since he was just a toddler, so living with the disease is nothing new to him.

But that doesn’t make it any easier for his parents, Brian and Alicia, big brother Nolan, or for Sawyer himself.

The Wabash family has been making the two-hour journey from their home to Riley Hospital for Children off and on for five years, ever since Sawyer was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of 2½.

Last week, they were back on the stem cell unit at Riley for Sawyer’s second stem cell transplant. His first transplant was in 2020, and for two years, he did well, but the appearance of large, purplish bruises on his legs triggered concern for Alicia Draper.

“He’s a boy, so he has tons of bruises, but these were different,” she said while taking a break Tuesday in a family lounge at Riley. “I knew something wasn’t right. He wasn’t sleeping well and was crying in pain, but he didn’t have a fever.”

Tests revealed the blood cancer was back.

Sawyer’s cousin Remy, a closer bone marrow match than anyone else in the family, saved his life two years ago. The 13-year-old is doing it again, donating his own stem cells for the little boy, who calls his older cousin “his bestie.”

“There were no matches in the donor registry for Sawyer, and his brother didn’t match at all,” Alicia said. “His dad and I are half matches, but we’re older.”

Extending the testing to first cousins helped identify Sawyer’s donor as the best match of all, which Alicia said is a miracle.

In preparation for the stem cell transplant Friday, Sawyer received twice-daily radiation treatments for four days last week at IU Health University Hospital.

That’s where he was headed Tuesday afternoon – his second trip of the day – when he climbed atop the gurney, briefly pulled down his mask and stuck out his tongue at one of his favorite nurses.

“He's feeling good now,” his mom said with a laugh. “He’s pestering and pranking the nurses.”

Sawyer, who is under the care of oncologist Dr. Terry Vik and stem cell physician Dr. April Rahrig, will be hospitalized at Riley for six to eight weeks post-transplant.

The family’s faith has been their biggest source of strength during this five-year journey, Alicia said.

“I’m a teacher, and I have a support system within my school, and we have lots of friends and family all over the United States who want to help,” she said. “But our faith in God is really the biggest thing. Not that I don’t get down or have lots of anxiety, but you have to keep going.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,

Related Doctor

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April L. Rahrig, DO

Pediatric Hematology - Oncology

related doctor headshot photo

Terry A. Vik, MD

Pediatric Hematology - Oncology