About the same time that Mary Young’s mom was dying from a fast-growing cancer called acute myelogenous leukemia, a man Mary had never met was registering with a bone marrow database thousands of miles away. And they would remain total strangers for the next twenty years. But after Mary got diagnosed with the very same cancer that took away her mom, she had reason to get to know the guy. That’s because his stem cell donation ended up saving Mary’s life.
Acute myelogenous leukemia invades blood and bone marrow. One of the treatments is a bone marrow or stem cell transplant from a healthy donor, but the odds of finding a match among relatives isn’t great. That’s why we have an international database of unrelated donors.
After twenty years of nothing, David Vaanice got an unexpected call from the bone marrow registry. His stem cells were desperately needed.
A year after the successful transplant, donor and recipient were allowed to learn about each other and meet – if they wanted to. Mary did. She told a reporter that not knowing who had saved her skin felt like a “missing piece.”
Mary visited David in California in January. More recently David travelled to Mary’s turf, meeting her Toronto healthcare team as well as a wide circle of friends and family members who, I’m guessing, treated him like a god.
I like to tell this story: When I joined the stem cell and bone marrow network five years ago, the technician drawing my blood said that when potential donors find out they’re a match for someone, they react as though they’ve won the Lotto-Max. (Note to the squeamish: you no longer need to submit a blood sample to be part of the database. All the necessary info can be extracted from a mailed-in cheek swab.)
Saving a life… what a high. “It’s something I never imagined in my wildest dreams,” David says in a news story. “This has been an extraordinary event and I have played a role in it.” Yeah, baby.