OTTAWA -- The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a challenge for life-saving stem cell treatments.

There are no large in-person donor drives in Ottawa and eastern Ontario, and the closing of the borders has caused additional challenges in using any donors from abroad.

Eight-year-old Oliver "Ollie" Acosta-Pickering has had a rough year.    After his sister discovered a lump on his head, he was diagnosed with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, also known as ALCL.  

Treatment was difficult.

"After like the third round of chemo, like on the start of the fourth round, I lost my sight,” says Oliver.

He needed a stem cell transplant as well.   Three perfect matches were found, says OIiver's mother Dawn Pickering.

"I felt like I had won the lottery, honestly - it’s probably even more exciting than winning money; winning the opportunity to save your child."

However, the donors were outside of Canada and COVID-19 just hit. It brought additional challenges,

"It was devastating, really; honestly, you feel like you just got the most amazing gift, and then it was ripped away from you," said Pickering.

That’s when his older sister, Abby Acosta-Pickering came to the rescue,

"I had found the bump, and then I was like - ok, so if I’m the one that started the journey, helped find it, then I should probably be the one to end the journey; to help in that small way."

She wasn’t a perfect match, but the stem cells worked.   Ollie was able to come home from the hospital.

"Cause of my sisters’ stem cells, my levels were very high," says Ollie.

What about other patients who don’t have a sister or close relative who is an acceptable donor?   A group of nursing students are stepping up to help find more donors in Canada.

"The six of us are working in partnership with the Canadian Blood Services, as part of our fourth year community nursing project," says Natalie Herbst, who is a student at the Algonquin College/University of Ottawa nursing program.  "Because COVID-19 has had an impact on stem-cell transplantation, our goal is to try and raise awareness about stem-cell donation."

Dr. Heidi Elmoazzen of Canadian Blood Services says they look to Canadian donors first, "With border closures happening, with flights getting cancelled, bringing cells in from other locations became much more challenging."

Large in-person donor drives aren’t possible right now, so like many other organizations, they’re going online.

"We will actually send you a swabbing kit to your home, and you can mail it back and join the registry that way."

They’re looking for anyone ages 17-35.   To check the criteria, or to add your name to the donor list, click here: