ISU Freshman Diagnosed with Leukemia as Sorority Rallies Around Her: 'Hoping and Praying' for Recovery (Exclusive)

“I just thought I had a crick in my neck or something — I didn't think it was a big deal,” Olivia Bieri tells PEOPLE

<p>Tamberlyn Bieri</p> Olivia Bieri and her family

Tamberlyn Bieri

Olivia Bieri and her family

Olivia Bieri was having the time of her life in the fall of 2022.

A freshman at Illinois State University, Bieri had just pledged her dream sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma and was beginning the required classes to fulfill her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

“I struggled a lot in high school with friends and everything,” Bieri, 19, tells PEOPLE. “But I finally was able to find my people (in college), and I was just so happy. Everything felt so perfect.”

In February 2023 she took an 11-hour train ride to Conway, Arkansas, to see her boyfriend of over four years.

But on the long ride back to ISU, Bieri felt a strange pain.

“I just thought I had a crick in my neck or something,” Bieri recalls. “I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

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<p>Tamberlyn Bieri</p> Olivia Bieri with her mom Tamberlyn, Dad David, and brother Jacob

Tamberlyn Bieri

Olivia Bieri with her mom Tamberlyn, Dad David, and brother Jacob

Once she returned to school, the Missouri native was given muscle relaxers from ISU doctors to combat the neck pain. But she was also given strict instructions to immediately come back if the pain didn’t get better in the coming days.

And the pain didn’t get better.

“I went back, and everything was just so swollen, you could tell something was wrong,” Bieri remembers. “They did an X-ray and did my CBC (complete blood cell) counts and that's when they noticed my white blood cells were super high. They told me that I had to go to the emergency room immediately.”

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<p>Tamberlyn Bieri</p> From left: Jacob, David, Olivia and Tamberlyn Bieri

Tamberlyn Bieri

From left: Jacob, David, Olivia and Tamberlyn Bieri

A few days later at Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Illinois, Bieri says she began to sense that something was very wrong.

“I kind of figured out on my own,” remarks Bieri. “I'm a nursing student, so I’ve got that medical brain. I know some of the terms. The doctor said he wanted to transfer me to the oncology department at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. That’s all he had to say. I knew oncology meant cancer.”

It was there that Bieri began her fight against leukemia.

<p>Tamberlyn Bieri</p> Olivia Bieri

Tamberlyn Bieri

Olivia Bieri

“Shocked is not descriptive enough,” Bieri’s mother Tamberlyn Bieri says of first hearing of her daughter’s diagnosis of acute leukemia with undifferentiated lineage. “My husband (David Bieri) and I were so happy that she was finally able to be happy and thriving at school. She had found wonderful friends, had excellent grades, and she was really expanding her horizons. To see this all snatched away from her is devastating.”

Luckily, Bieri and her family, which also includes her brother Jacob, have found themselves surrounded by love during these difficult days, including from the ISU sororities and fraternities. In recent weeks the organizations have banded together to show their support for Bieri in the form of fundraisers.

“My husband and were both Greeks, so we know all the good things about Greek life, but the reality is that Greek life gets such a bad rap,” says Tamberlyn.

“To see not only her sorority, but the fraternities and the other sororities rallying around her has just been overwhelming and makes me feel so proud of the Greek community. It's a family no matter what house you're in.”

<p>Tamberlyn Bieri</p> Olivia Bieri with her sorority sisters at Illinois State University

Tamberlyn Bieri

Olivia Bieri with her sorority sisters at Illinois State University

Currently, Bieri’s band of supporters are hard at work to find a bone marrow donor that could ultimately save her life. A recent bone marrow drive organized by Kappa Kappa Gamma was attended by over 120 students, and another bone marrow drive will take place in St. Louis on April 20.

Her family has also set up a GoFundMe.

“Chemo will not cure her,” explains Tamberlyn, whose daughter is now at home but will return to the hospital twice a week for chemotherapy and bloodwork until she is deemed ready for a bone marrow transplant. “Her only way to be cured is by getting a bone marrow transplant.”

And if all goes as Bieri hopes, she will get that bone marrow transplant and ultimately return to school in the fall.

“I'm supposed to live in the house next year, and I'm just hoping and praying that I'll be able to do that,” Bieri says quietly. “The biggest thing I miss right now is just being at school. I'd much rather be stressing about tests than stressing out about cancer.”

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