First Person: It’s the Strangers that Save You

November 24, 2017 at 1:49 pm

By: Bill Harper

Bill stands on Alki Beach

The author standing at Alki Beach.

The first time I ever got a blood transfusion was seven years ago in a hospital in Dakar, Senegal. The last and 264th time was five years ago, I was at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and I was cancer-free.

In Senegal, I was 20 years old, had a bruise up the length of my upper right arm, and thought the reason why I was so thin, pale, tired, and feverous was that I was a white kid from the Pacific Northwest not genetically equipped for the 120-degree summer heat of the Sahara Desert.

But the blood bags kept coming; another, it seemed, every few hours and many of them filled with some liquid the color of fresh honey and labeled “Plaquettes,” the French word, I would later learn, for “Platelets.” For four days, I received almost-constant blood and platelet transfusions, and nobody told me why. But when a medevac flight took me to a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany and as I passed beneath a sign that read “oncology,” it occurred to me that I never really knew what that word meant. It wouldn’t be long until I found out.

It would take three years, 32 surgeries, chemo, radiation, a stem cell transplant from a young woman from Oklahoma and 264 more blood transfusions to cure me of cancer and clean up the mess it made inside me. My heroes are surgeons, nurses, oncologists, an Oklahoman girl whose love for her brothers motivated her to save my life, and 265 altruistic strangers whose blood kept me alive when my own body turned against me.

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My big sister Erin was weeding her garden in Coupeville, Washington, in early July 2010 when she got the phone call nobody ever sees coming. It was the perfect summer day – the sun was shining, the air was still and her big yellow dog Max was snoozing in some dust next to her.

That phone call was from me. I was in Nuremberg, Germany – somewhere I wasn’t even supposed to be – and I was calling her to tell her I had leukemia.

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Bill standing with a few of things he loves: cars and planes.

It found me in the deserts of West Africa, 9,000 miles away from home in a place where I spent late summer nights under the brightest night sky I’d ever seen listening to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” on repeat and thinking about a girl I was pretty sure I was in love with. I had been working on a research project for school in Senegal when I started feeling sick.

It all started in a microscopic place in my bone marrow. That’s what the science says, but if you asked me, I’d say it started in the part of my back that I’ve have never really been able to scratch. We’ve always been at odds, that spot and me, and being the place in my body where my cancer began would be a hell of a power play.

You don’t feel it when you get cancer; it doesn’t tap you on the shoulder or put its hand out to for you to shake. And for as momentous of a thing as it is, it comes on with very little fanfare.

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Two weeks after arriving in Dakar, a long, purple and splotchy bruise stretching from my shoulder down to my elbow appeared. How strange, I thought, for extreme heat to cause something like that.

And then out in the desert, my skin turned stark and eggshell-white and I developed dark spots in my vision – leukemia cells had found their way even into my eyeballs and detached my retinas. I hemorrhaged weight and developed a high fever – my body’s confused, last-ditch effort to stop the rogue cells’ overwhelming, unchecked aggression. Unstoppable now.

Back in Dakar and preparing to go home, my breaths were barely enough to get me up the flight of stairs to our apartment. I was panting and light headed halfway up, for when the air reached the alveoli in my lungs, they were hardly any red blood cells there to be oxygenated. And my finger, pricked by a nurse in a side-street doctor’s office, took far too long to stop bleeding.

Millions of mutated, self-righteous white blood cells – the bloodstream bullies – were silently taking over, crowding out my platelets and red blood cells for the cruelly simple reason that they could.

The mutant cells floated into my toes, my fingertips, my cerebral spinal fluid, my lungs, and even my brain stem; no part of me could hide from them. Every single heartbeat pushed them further and further into my most outlying capillaries and sealed my fate tighter.

My body, outflanked and outgunned, had created a monster.

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Part of Bill’s Seattle Cancer Care Alliance transplant team.

After an emergency medevac flight to Nuremberg, Germany, I met up with my mother and we found ourselves in a bright-white patient room in the oncology wing of an enormous hospital. She, unlike me, knew what the word “oncology” meant and, as a hospital employee herself, also knew that there’s only ever one reason why people go to that unit.

She shot up in her chair when the doctor came in and extended his hand – she was nervous, pained, terrified. She leaned in towards him and took my hand.

That doctor was tall, brown-haired and Germanic, soft spoken but authoritative. He asked me what they had told me in Senegal. “Nothing,” I said. “They gave me a ton of blood but they never told me why.” This was a quirk of the old French colonial medical system still used in Senegal today whereby patients are not informed of suspected diagnoses, only confirmed ones. It must be malaria, I’d thought, or yellow fever – something that would have made sense.

The doctor seemed surprised and drew a long breath, leaning back on his little round wheeled stool, nodding almost imperceptibly.

My big sister, 7,000 miles away, was just waking up. It was sunny outside, a good day for gardening.

“Oh,” the doctor said, leaning forward. “You have leukemia.”

The sound my mother made as her back doubled over and tears broke free from her eyes was not a cry or a whimper or a moan. It was a sound that can only come from a mother whose heart, full of love, hope and joy since the moment she first laid eyes on her son is shattering into million pieces and she’s crumbling.

That was the worst day of my life until the day came a month later when the oncologists came in to say that my only shot at a second chance depended on the kindness and stem cells of a stranger who may or may not even exist. That’s when I got scared.

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Bill and his stem cell donor, Kathryne, when they met in 2014.

Kathryne Taylor is a 31-year-old vegetarian food blogger from Oklahoma City with a degree in advertising, a spotted, mid-sized dog named Cookie and a conviction for healthy eating bordering on the religious. She has a wide smile, long, wavy brown hair and every day I have lived since January 11, 2011 has been thanks to her. Because that was the day she donated some of her stem cells to me in a tiny bag that seemed far too small for what it contained: the rest of my life.

I had to wait five years for my doctors to consider me “cured” from leukemia. What Kathryne did for me that day is far from the only help I had to reach that zenith of cancer recovery, but without it, everything else – the chemo, scary radiation sessions, 32 surgeries, and 265 blood transfusions – would have made no difference.

And that, to a guy who was only 20 years old, hadn’t even graduated from college yet or made it to the south of France, was just no way to live.

In the span of just one sole afternoon, Kathryne gave me a second, a fighting, and a best chance. And she didn’t even know my name.

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As my sibling, Erin had a 25 percent chance of being a suitable stem cell donor match for me and desperate to help me, she’d decided that giving me her stem cells was going to be how she’d do it. She was devastated when she found out she couldn’t.

But Kathryne is an older sister too; she’s even the same age as Erin and one of her two younger brothers is the same age as me. And it was her love for her brothers – the same kind that broke Erin’s heart – that inspired Kathryne to join the stem cell donor registry as soon as she turned 18.

That and an episode of the silly TV high school melodrama Popular where one of the young characters, sick with leukemia, struggles to find someone closely matched enough to be his stem cell donor.

That character’s story resonated with Kathryne. She couldn’t imagine the pain and powerlessness she’d feel if one of her brothers ever got leukemia and she wasn’t a match to save them. She made a promise to herself to join the registry as soon as she turned 18 and she kept it.

“I just felt a really strange sort of calling to be on it,” she said to me once. “I just imagined being in another older sister’s existent or non-existent shoes and really hoping that the person out there who could help my brother would help him. I just would hope that someone would do that for my brothers or for me if we were in that position.”

Six years later, my older sister became one of those sisters and I became one of those brothers. So that feeling Kathryne had when she was just 17 wasn’t a feeling at all, but a premonition that connected two seemingly-random people with 2,000 miles between them just because one of them needed the other to save his life.

Some might call that God’s work and some might call it fate, but I call it the very best of humanity and I call her my hero.

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In September, Kathryne got a letter in the mail that said, like she somehow foresaw six years earlier, there really was someone out there who might need her. She found out she was the best donor candidate for the unnamed patient in need – me – and she got additional testing done right away to make sure she was healthy enough to donate. She was.

About a month later and after a five-day course of a medication that stimulated stem cell production in her bone marrow, she went to the Oklahoma Blood Institute, where an apheresis machine filtered out her stem cells for three hours. When she was finished, her family prayed over the little bag before the nurse handed it off to an airport-bound courier.

And so, on the snowy night of January 11, 2011, her stem cells, her immune system, and her whole family’s prayers arrived in my hospital room in an unceremonious little bag that had in it my only shot at a second chance. I kissed the little bag before the nurse hung it up on the IV pole, wishing the tiny cells well on their short journey into my bone marrow.

Today, Kathryne is one of the best friends I’ve ever had.  We’ve since found out that we both spent college semesters studying in France, have a passion for cooking and degrees in communication – hers in advertising, mine in journalism. Her brother drove through Nuremberg on the day my diagnosis there and her dad, like me, has a pilot’s license. We are kindred, both in spirit and in blood.

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We talk all the time about the kindness of strangers, usually about little things like people stopping to help you change a tire, holding the door open for you, or a community coming together to help a family rebuild after a tragedy. We don’t usually look for reasons to help people, and when it comes to the people like who need the kindness of a stranger to save their lives, we help them because everybody is somebody’s brother, sister, son, daughter, father or mother and, like Kathryne said, we only hope they’d do it for us too.

To me, Kathryne and those 265 blood donors epitomize what being human really means, because a world where someone will go out of their way to save a complete stranger’s life is a world built on the strongest of principles: human kindness.

Giving Birth Offers a Unique Opportunity to Give Life to Others

November 14, 2017 at 2:42 pm

For new moms like Keri, donating umbilical cord blood is a simple way to save a life.

In 1998, Keri Tawney’s father underwent treatment for multiple myeloma—a type of blood cancer—at the University of Washington Medical Center. Regular blood transfusions were an integral part of his treatment. Although he was a candidate for a stem cell transplant from his own bone marrow, Keri’s dad passed away before he was able to complete this treatment.

Keri decided to honor her father’s memory by donating the umbilical cord blood of her daughter, Kassie, born in 2006. Like bone marrow, umbilical cord blood contains stem cells that can help doctors treat myeloma, leukemia and other cancers and immune disorders.

After cord blood is collected it is processed, “typed,” tested and entered into the national transplantation registry. The units are available to patients in need both in the U.S. and around the world.

Keri recollects, “Donating my daughter’s cord blood gave me a sense of closure about my dad’s passing. Though it couldn’t help him, I knew Kassie’s cord blood could make a life-changing difference for someone else.”

That’s exactly what happened.

In April 2010, Keri received a call from Bloodworks Northwest’s Cord Blood Program: Kassie’s cord blood was a match for a similar-age boy with leukemia. After hearing the news, Keri was overwhelmed with emotion.

In a personal blog post about the receiving the call, Keri wrote: “The recipient family’s] road ahead is long, and the courage and will power required of this little boy will be beyond what most of us can ever comprehend, but I am so grateful that he has this chance, and so grateful to the Bloodworks Northwest cord blood donation program.”

Kassie isn’t old enough to know how her cord blood donation had a lifesaving impact. But Keri plans to tell her when she is old enough to understand. “She has an empathetic heart, and it will surely be meaningful to her,” Keri says.

Unfortunately, despite its lifesaving potential cord blood is often discarded. New moms don’t know about the opportunity to donate. BloodworksNW is working hard to spread the word and to make the process available in all maternity wards. Donating cord blood: one new life, and another life saved. What could be more powerful than that?

BloodworksNW created the first umbilical cord-blood program in the Pacific Northwest in 1997. Today we partner with 12 hospitals in Washington State, Oregon, and Hawaii. growing partnerships hold the promise of saving more lives, raising awareness about cord blood donation and increasing the availability of stem cells for transplantation. Find out more at BloodworksNW.org/cordblood.

Retired Army Vet Draws on Military Experience as a Bloodworks Northwest Volunteer

November 11, 2017 at 9:58 am

In some ways, John Ferdon saw himself as a professional dad. A former United States Army troop commander, he was responsible for young soldiers’ safety and well-being in Korea, day and night.

“It’s kind of like you’re a parent—you’re so involved in every facet of life,” he said. “Except, obviously, these aren’t kids—they’re soldiers. I had to make sure they had the skills necessary to do the things they were asked to do.”

John’s experience mentoring up-and-coming leaders shines in his role as a volunteer donor monitor at Bloodworks Northwest in Bellingham. As a volunteer, John supports donors at high school and college blood drives throughout Whatcom County. Part of the appeal, he said, is the interesting conversations that crop up—and the opportunity to inspire the next generation of blood donors.

“What really has impressed me at the high schools is the number of first-time donors,” he said. “They’re sixteen years old and they’re coming in to start donating blood.”

Like those young donors, John entered army service with little idea of the lifelong impact he could have. He joined the army in 1967 with the intention to serve for two years and get back to graduate school. But there was one problem: he really liked it.

John poses with Bloodworks volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Page’s daughter, Virginia, after presenting at her elementary school. 

Two years of active duty turned into 20. John went on to spend another 21 years in a civilian role as an army management analyst. For 15 of those total 41 years, he was stationed overseas in Korea, Vietnam and Germany.

According to John, military service helped him understand the power of a blood donation and instilled a sense of duty to give blood when possible.

“That was just something that was part of the army culture if you will—the importance of donating,” he said. “During the army and of course now with my volunteer work, I’m constantly meeting donors who voluntarily tell me how important this is either because they have needed blood or someone in their family or friends have needed it,” he said.

After more than four decades of military service, a little rest and relaxation was in order. But John and his wife, Margo, didn’t want to retire just anywhere. The appeal of Bellingham, Washington?

“Believe it or not, it was the weather,” John said.

Today, John is a member of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and a regular volunteer with Bloodworks. As in his army days, he prizes the opportunity both organizations offer to connect with the community.

“Anywhere I’m stationed in the army, there’s always been a connection either within the army family or outside with the local communities,” he said. “I do feel that as veterans, we have an obligation to support our community and we do that just as much as we can.”

Bloodworks is profoundly grateful to John and all of America’s veterans for the service they have given and continue to give–as blood donors, volunteers, colleagues, and partners. Thank you for making our world a better place.

Meet the Bloodworks Center for Global Impact’s New Class of Life Savers

November 2, 2017 at 12:20 pm

In October, healthcare leaders from around the world traveled to Bloodworks Northwest–some, despite horrific natural disasters–to attend a special Bloodworks Center for Global Impact course. Below, we share some of their stories and the insights they’ll use to save lives back home. 

There’s a river where a road once was in Peggy Samuels’s Turks and Caicos hometown.

In a series of photos, Peggy’s daughter captured the destruction left by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Tilting utility poles and sagging palm trees grazed murky brown water that seeped into buildings’ ground floors.

Though Peggy said her kids were scared, she kept her travel plans to Bloodworks Northwest’s Seattle headquarters. As Chief Medical Technologist for the National Blood Bank of Turks and Caicos Islands, Peggy was part of a special group of international healthcare leaders attending the Bloodworks Center for Global Impact Laboratory Quality Management Systems course. “I made a huge effort to get here after the hurricanes because I found it so important to obtain the knowledge that we’re now getting,” she said.

The Bloodworks Center for Global Impact prepares healthcare professionals from all over the world to tackle blood banking challenges in their home countries–from dealing with infected blood, to boosting donor recruitment and engagement. This year’s scholars traveled from as far as Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire to get the most up-to-date information about collecting and transfusing blood.

Bloodworks Northwest’s role as a blood center and research institute puts it in a unique position to help, according to Bloodworks’ Chief Operating Officer, Linda Barnes.”There are many organizations that academically train individuals, but they may not have the breadth and depth of services we offer from arm to arm,” she said.

Meet the Scholars

DSC_2000Peggy Samuels 
Turks and Caicos Ministry of Health, Agriculture and Human Services

Her Role: Chief Medical Technologist, overseeing the National Public Health Lab and Blood Bank
Why Bloodworks Academy: “The skills that we learn here will really impact our organizations back home. I made a huge effort to get here after the hurricanes because I found it so important to obtain the knowledge that we’re now getting.”
Biggest Challenge: “Before the hurricanes, we wanted to stock up on blood, and we were so stressed out anticipating a Category 5, that nobody wanted to donate. People were busy putting up their shutters, people were busy buying plywood, getting water, stocking up. We sent text messages, but it was difficult–I’ve never experienced that before.”
New Insight: “We don’t have an apheresis machine, so right now if an adult needs platelets, we have to take five donors to get the five packs of platelets. [At Bloodworks], you can take one donor, hook them up to the apheresis machine and you get one set of platelets for one patient, which is so much easier.”

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Dr. Liliane Siransy
National Blood Transfusion Service of Cote D’Ivoire

Her Role: Blood Bank Coordinator
Why Bloodworks Academy: “Blood transfusion is my passion and it’s very interesting to see how it’s done here in Seattle.”
Biggest Challenge: “We have a lot of budgetary problems. It’s very hard to perform our services because there’s always something that interrupts us on a daily basis. Nevertheless, we do have personnel who are very motivated and who work very hard to find solutions.”
New Insight: “On the very first day we learned that the collection of blood can take place with donors who are as young as sixteen. Where I come from, it begins at eighteen years of age. We have a terrible lack of blood and I heard it would be possible–with all of the necessary precautions–to lower the age to somehow mediate our shortage.”

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Carol Robinson
Lab Manager, Turks and Caicos Island Hospital Clinical Lab

Her Role: Lab Manager
Why Bloodworks Academy: “To learn more about how I can improve in the services of blood banking back in the Turks and Caicos islands. As well as to see if what we’re doing back at home is OK.”
Biggest Challenge: “Having the donors come in to donate.”
New Insight: “I’m learning that some of the challenges we have back home are also here. I’m learning that there’s always room to learn more, there’s always room for improvement. There are even some things you don’t realize you know until someone brings it up to you. It opens your eyes and it reinforces what you already know.”

Dr. Amadou Diarra
National Blood Transfusion Service of Mali

His Role: Transfusion Specialist
Biggest Challenge: “We don’t have enough blood donors. Infectious diseases are prevalent in our area as well. There are very few qualified people in the field and we are very short on financing.”
Why Bloodworks Academy: “We came to see the best and to learn from the best.  It’s wonderful to be able to benefit from the training we’re receiving at Bloodworks and we hope to transfer the knowledge into or own practices in our own countries.”
New Insight: What we’re seeing here is not something new for us, but what is different is the organization, the skills. At the end of this visit, we’re going to try to understand what we can do with what we have acquired here and try to apply it, taking into consideration the limited resources we have at home.”

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Sheryl Jones
Turks and Caicos Islands Hospital

Her Role: Lead Medical Technologist
The Biggest Challenge: “The challenges I face are the doctors ordering more blood than we can keep up with. We have to be calling them, asking, ‘Do you still really need this unit? Can we please release it?’ The next challenge is that the doctors do not share with their patients that its good for you to bring in a donor so you have a unit of blood on standby.”
New Insight: “Bloodworks’ Dr. Megan spoke about when you should transfuse [blood] and how much do you transfuse. I found that so interesting because it’s one of the problems the director back home was facing.”

Behind the Scenes: A Bloodworks Donor’s Photo Shoot with Seattle Football Star Bobby Wagner

October 27, 2017 at 1:06 pm

 

 

 

Bobby Wagner-2Nicole Stanton is an art director, mama of two boys, blood donor–and a big football fan.

So naturally, she was thrilled when she found out she would be joining the Bloodworks photo shoot with Seattle professional football player Bobby Wagner. Bobby will hang out with 12 randomly selected donors and volunteers at the end of the season.

“I was a huge fan when Bobby joined the team, and getting to meet him and get some photos was awesome,” she said. “A lot of bragging on social media.”

Nicole has been a blood donor even longer than she’s been bleeding blue and green.

“It all started in high school and from there, when I see an opportunity, I take advantage of it,” she said.

Though Nicole is sometimes deferred due to a low iron count, she makes it a point to donate when the Bloodworks bus comes to her work. For her, it’s an efficient way to help the community and an opportunity to set an example for her kids.

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“I have a six-year-old who’s very impressionable right now,” she said. “I’m trying to lay out a good example of community service at a young age.”

According to Nicole, Bobby’s support of blood donation is another great example.

“I think they are an awesome football team and I love their commitment to doing good in the community,” she said. “The fact that the partnership exists makes total sense to me.”

So, what was Bobby like in person?

“He is super kind and he definitely has a sense of humor,” she said.  “My dad is a fan, and you know, all through my life, my kids and everything, he’s like, ‘Oh that’s cool,’ but that photo of me and Bobby—he was so impressed. I think I made him the most proud of me he’s ever been.”

Want to hang out with Bobby Wagner too? You’ll be entered to win an invite each time you give blood or volunteer, through Feb. 4. Learn more at MeetBobby.BloodworksNW.org.

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