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Worthington community stepping up to bat for Kilbourne's George

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Sports can divide a community if people don't share the same allegiance to a team.

That said, adversity has a way of bringing a community together, and it's truly special when fans from opposite sides unite in the name of humanity.

Such is the case for Worthington Kilbourne High School sophomore Drew George, who was the starting shortstop for the Wolves' baseball team as a freshman.

George was diagnosed with leukemia on Nov. 7 and, since that time, has received support not only from his Kilbourne family, but the entire Worthington community and others in central Ohio.

"The support has been wonderful and unbelievable," George said. "I didn't even think I knew that many people. Actually, there are many people I don't really know who have sent texts, support and prayers. My parents' friends and friends of my friends from travel baseball to soccer and basketball ... it's been overwhelming.

"I've received support from people in New Albany, Dublin Scioto, Westerville and all over the place. I have a lot of friends at Thomas (Worthington) and they've been very supportive."

George was scheduled to undergo an allogeneic bone marrow transplant April 9, with his sister, Tori, being the donor. Although his leukemia is in remission, doctors have told him it will return without the transplant.

"Siblings usually only have a 25 percent chance of being a match, but Tori is a 10-of-10 match," said Julie O'Donnell, Drew's mother, referring to human leukocyte antigen typing, a method to determine how closely the tissues of one person match the tissues of another. "She's a senior at Kilbourne and I'm sure this isn't how she envisioned the final months of her senior year going. His dad, Andy George, his stepfather Bryan O'Donnell, and all of our extended families have really pulled together for Drew."

Tori was to have been admitted to Nationwide Children's Hospital the day of the transplant and, according to O'Donnell, would have been able to watch her brother receive her bone marrow. She was expected to be discharged that same day.

Drew won't be released until his blood counts are 500 or higher for three consecutive days. Although the timeline varies, O'Donnell said patients who undergo such a procedure generally remain hospitalized for four to six weeks after surgery.

The support that the community has shown George should come as no surprise given that Worthington and other central Ohio communities have helped to raise funds for former Thomas baseball coach Stephen Gussler the last few years.

Gussler, who stepped down before this season after leading the Cardinals for 16 years, is battling stage 4 colon cancer. He recently announced good news, saying "there are no detectable signs of cancer right now."

There have been numerous "GussStrong" events held, and Gussler is willing to do what he can to help George.

"When I heard about this, I wanted to reach out to him right away," Gussler said. "It takes a lot to battle cancer and I wanted him to know that he is not alone and that he can beat this. All of the great people in my foundation, including my brother Eric, wanted to put something together for him."

There will be a combined fundraiser June 21. The DrewStrong 5K run/walk begins at 8 a.m. at home plate at Kilbourne, with the finishing point being home plate at Thomas. A GussStrong golf outing will follow, starting at 2 p.m. at York Golf Club.

"People tell me I inspire them, but I want everyone to know that I'm living because they inspire me," Gussler said. "I am fortunate to have so many wonderful people around me and that's the type of support I want to give Drew.

"I think sports fans are very passionate. When they get behind a cause, they really rally hard. We can be combatants on the field, but we can do so much good off the field when we unite."

George, who turned 16 on Dec. 12, was admitted to Children's Hospital the day he was diagnosed and remained there through Dec. 29, during which time he underwent his first round of chemotherapy. He was home from Dec. 30 through Jan. 2 before returning Jan. 3 to begin his second round of treatment.

His third round began Feb. 11 and he returned home March 10, where he remained for three weeks before being re-admitted.

On Feb. 7, between his second and third round of treatment, George attended Kilbourne's "orange out" home basketball game against New Albany, with both teams wearing orange uniforms in support of George.

"We are blessed to live in Worthington and to have GussStrong sponsor a fundraiser to benefit Drew," O'Donnell said.

On March 31, before the Kilbourne baseball team's opener against Westland, George threw out a ceremonial first pitch.

"It was a great turnout, the weather was wonderful, Kilbourne fans showed up strong and Drew threw the first pitch right down the pipe," coach Jeff Boulware said.

George, a straight-A student, expects to complete his sophomore year this summer.

"He doesn't want to fall behind and he wants everything to remain on schedule," O'Donnell said. "It usually takes six to 12 months to recover from this transplant, so Drew won't be starting school on time next fall. He has lost some weight and muscle mass, but he's stronger mentally than any of us. When he was first diagnosed, he said, 'OK, let's get this thing going.'

"I think that sports, especially the thought of playing baseball again, keep him motivated."

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