July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

Working as a stylist for her half-brother Nelly in 2001, Jackie Donahue often complained of being tired. “I thought maybe she just wasn’t used to it,” says the rapper of his hectic schedule. But when an aching Donahue (“I was hurting, my ribs, my bones, everywhere”) checked into a St. Louis hospital that March, she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Says Nelly: “It was a shock.”

Bigger surprises lay ahead. Donahue, 30, suffered a relapse this January and learned she needed a bone marrow transplant—but doctors told her finding a donor would be difficult. While there is a greater likelihood of finding a match within one’s own ethnic group, of the 5 million people registered with the National Marrow Donor Program, only 389,000 are black. “I was real frustrated,” says Donahue. Not Nelly. He helped organize a June 21 bone marrow drive targeted at minorities in St. Louis and L.A. “This isn’t a one-day thing,” says Nelly, 28. “We’re going to keep on this. If you’re not a match for her, you could be a match for someone else.” Brother and sister weren’t always so close. Growing up in St. Louis, Nelly (born Cornell Haynes Jr.) and Donahue shared the same dad (Cornell Sr., 52) but were raised in different households and only met occasionally. “I’d get on her nerves, and we’d get in fights. Then we’d be mad when it was time to leave,” says Nelly. When Donahue was diagnosed with leukemia, “you think the worst,” he says. “But it wouldn’t help if I was depressed, because I knew she would be. You’ve got to keep everything in the positive.”

Donahue underwent aggressive chemotherapy immediately, and her leukemia went into remission from June 2001 to January. When Jackie relapsed she phoned Nelly with the news and sobbed, “My hair’s going to fall out again.” Nelly’s response: “We got the scarves. We know how to do it now.”

This time, though, the leukemia did not respond to chemotherapy. When the family heard the grim news about the lack of bone marrow donors, Nelly’s aunt Chalena Mack suggested holding a drive. “I’m worried, but I’m not scared,” says the rapper. “I just have to be stronger. This is the one negative thing in her life. This is not going to ruin her life.”

In May he and Jackie formed Jes Us 4 Jackie, a campaign to find donors for Donahue and others and to raise bone marrow donation awareness. His charitable organization 4Sho4Kids organized the drives and paid the $65 testing fees for each of the nearly 1,200 new donors in St. Louis and L.A., including singer Johnny Gill, boxer Mia St. John and Nelly himself. “A lot of minority folks are going to be helped as a result of this,” says Gill. “That’s a big deal for someone so young to have that kind of vision.”

Donahue, a single mom to Shawn, 12, and Sydney, 6, says she is “very optimistic” about her chances (results are usually available a few weeks after testing). So is Nelly. “We’re not wishing to find a donor,” he says. “We’re going to find a donor.”

Jason Lynch

Kate Klise in St. Louis and Carrie Bell in Los Angeles

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