Bonded by bone marrow


In March 2001, at the age of 35, Sue Christensen received devastating news – she had myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-leukemia that can progress to a fatal cancer of the blood. Sue’s only hope to beat cancer was to have a bone marrow transplant. Since her brother’s bone marrow was not a compatible match, Sue’s fate lay in the chances of finding a donor through Canadian Blood Services’ Unrelated Bone Marrow Registry (CBS UBMR).

“I was still feeling very healthy at the time they started looking for a donor, and I was hopeful that they would find a match for me,” said Sue.

Sue was under the care of Hamilton Health Sciences Hematology Unit lead by Dr. Irwin Walker, a hematologist who made Canadian medical history when he performed the first successful bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor in 1988. Since then, the renowned Hematology Unit has performed more than 340 related and unrelated bone marrow transplants for people in Central South Ontario and beyond.

Kathy Greene, an Advanced Practice Nurse in the Hematology Unit searched the UMBR, a registry of over five million donors across 25 countries to find a match for Sue. The computer system determined there was a close match, so Kathy sent in a request to do further testing to confirm Sue’s compatibility with the donor’s bone marrow.

Across Canada, in the small town of High River, Alberta, Thelma Morton’s phone rang. On the day before her 31st birthday, Thelma was given a special gift from CBS. The caller told her that she was identified as a close match for someone requiring a bone marrow transplant.

“I felt like I had just won a lottery. I was chosen to save someone’s life,” said Thelma.

Thelma, a single mother of three children, signed up as bone marrow donor seven and a half years ago after attending a public talk in her hometown.

“My decision to join the registry was easy. If my kids were sick, I’d want someone to help them. I felt that I needed to do my part to help others,” explained Thelma.

Thelma provided more blood samples that were sent to Hamilton Health Sciences’ specialized HLA laboratory, one of four such facilities in Ontario where highly specialized DNA testing is performed to confirm closeness of the donor’s bone marrow to the patient.

After only seven months waiting for a transplant, Sue received the fantastic news that there was a match.

For the five consecutive days prior to Sue’s transplant, she received high doses of chemotherapy and three days of full body radiation therapy at the Juravinski Cancer Centre. With Sue’s immune system suppressed, her body was ready to receive the new bone marrow.

Meanwhile, in Calgary, Thelma underwent a day procedure under general anaesthetic to withdraw about 200 ml of bone marrow from her hip which was shipped to HHS for Sue’s transplant.

Fortunately, Sue’s new bone marrow responded well to the transplant and after spending five weeks in isolation in the Hematology Unit, she was ready to go home.

The UBMR is an anonymous registry, and patients and donors have to wait one year following transplant before contact can be made, as long as both parties are interested. In the meantime, Sue, her parents and her in-laws all sent anonymous thank-you cards through CBS to the person who saved Sue’s life.

At the one-year anniversary of her transplant, Sue was anxious to find out who her donor was, and discovered that her donor was interested in connecting with her too.

Sue’s first contact with Thelma was through email and the pair quickly became friends and corresponded regularly. Both were surprised at how many similarities there were between them, including the fact that they were both civilians on their local police services – Sue as a Special Constable, and Thelma as a volunteer jail guard.

After more than a year of having a long-distance friendship, Sue sent Thelma a plane ticket and invited her to spend a week at her family’s home in Guelph. Included in their action-packed week was spending an afternoon at HHS’ 23rd Annual Bone Marrow Transplant Picnic, where donors, patients, HHS’ multidisciplinary hematology team and local CBS staff get together and reminisce.

Sue is approaching the two-year anniversary of her transplant, she is back to work and doing very well aside from some typical issues related to her transplant.

“I was very fortunate. A lot of people die waiting for a donor. That’s why it’s so important for people to be part of the registry,” said Sue.

One year after the transplant, donors are able to rejoin the registry providing they still meet the health criteria. Thelma’s already back on the list and is prepared to donate her bone marrow again, should she get another call.

“I don’t know how to explain it – it’s just an amazing feeling. If people can do it, they should,” said Thelma.

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