All eyes were on the bride and groom at their beautiful New York wedding. But the most welcomed guest flew up from Texas and had only known the bride and her family for a short time. After all, the guest gave the bride the best possible gift – a second chance at life by donating her bone marrow.
When the bride, Lauren Heuchling, was 21 years old, she was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FEL). FEL builds up white blood cells and destroys other blood cells. Without a bone marrow transplant, Lauren would die. Fate stepped in, and on Sept. 14, 2006, Sarah Hergenrother donated her bone marrow to help someone she had never met.
A year after the transplant, Sarah did meet Lauren in New York and they became fast friends. They found out they had plenty in common. Both of their parents were immigrants, they were both catholic and went to catholic school and both met their husbands at a bar.
And it all started at one small blood drive at Sarah’s church. Sarah donated blood, and while waiting for her husband to finish giving, began chatting with volunteers from the National Marrow Donor Program. They told her she may never be called to donate, but a year later, the phone rang and Sarah was told that she was a match.
Sarah donated her marrow at Cook Children’s Medical Center. Adult volunteer marrow donors come to Cook Children’s from all over Texas, and occasionally neighboring states, to have their marrow harvested and sent wherever the patient who needs the donation lives. Cook Children’s is the only adult stem cell donor center that is located in a freestanding pediatric center in Texas. Cook Children’s harvests marrow from 15 to 20 adult donors per year these precious life-saving cells are then sent all over the world as the NMDP has cooperative agreements with over 13 International registries.
“We are so lucky to have a National Marrow Donor Program donor center here at Cook Children’s,” said Gretchen Eames, M.D., medical director of the Hematology and Oncology program. “It is a jewel with many, many wonderful stories over the years of wonderful, kind, compassionate people helping someone across the world that they don’t even know.”
Sarah knew nothing about Lauren or the marrow donor program. She signed up because that’s what she does, she helps people. She’s a special education teacher, donates blood and runs a food pantry. She thought nothing of signing up to donate bone marrow. Even after her bone marrow was harvested at Cook Children’s, Sarah did not grasp the full impact on Lauren’s life. Until she met her a year later.
For one year, families involved in the marrow program cannot exchange contact information. Once the year passes and both families agree, they can reach out to one another. Sarah and Lauren exchanged email addresses and met each other in New York when Sarah traveled there with her daughter for a drill team competition a couple of years prior to the wedding. But it wasn’t until the day of the actual event, that the gravity of Sarah’s donation hit her.
“It didn’t dawn on me until we went to the wedding,” Sarah said. “We were so welcomed by the family with lots of hugs. They were so appreciative . For me, it was just, ‘oh yeah, I gave bone marrow. Not a big deal.’ But it was a big deal. To get the chance to be with Lauren and her family. I never got to see her sick. I only saw this beautiful 21 year old girl. It was amazing.”
Since seeing the impact of her donation, Sarah has spread the gospel of marrow donation across the country. Her husband, her sister and her grown children are all on the national registry and available to donate their marrow. On the way to Lauren’s wedding, Sarah once convinced a lady she was seated next to on the plane to register. Sarah even went to Washington D.C. to testify in front of congress to make sure legislation passed in support of bone marrow donation (it did) and next she wants to be a courier who brings stem cells to the transplant center for Cook Children’s.
And she hopes one day, she will be a match for someone else.
“Now that I really understand what I did, I would love to be called to donate again,” she said.
Like Sarah, Dell Camacho knew the odds of donating after he registered were small, but he decided to do his part and register.
For 13 years, Camacho has worked at Cook Children’s as the senior biomed technician. But his two most important jobs at the medical center occurred on his days off.
Camacho donated his bone marrow on July 22, 1996, and again on Jan. 28, 2004.
Camacho registered during a health fair at a local mall. He stopped to have his cholesterol checked and while there, he talked to marrow donor volunteers. They told Camacho there was a shortage in Hispanics participating in the donor program.
Two years later, he got a call from the staff at Cook Children’s to let him know that he was a match for a young child. In 1996, he spent a few hours to donate 300 cc (or 10 ounces) of marrow from his hip.
A year later, Camacho learned that his donation helped a 10-year old boy who had aplastic anemia, a blood disorder in which the body’s bone marrow doesn’t make enough new blood cells. Camacho never met the boy, who lives in California, but calls the process “terrific” and a bit “overwhelming.”
“I’m so proud to work with Cook Children’s,” Camacho said. “Everyone here goes out of their way to help kids. We have terrific people in the bone marrow program. Some people are still here from my first harvest surgery. There’s a great commitment to this program. To me, it’s worth doing to do something great for somebody. It’s worth any pain or discomfort you may experience to save someone’s life.”
Camacho’s second harvest in 2004 did not end successfully. The adult patient who received the marrow did not survive, leaving Camacho saddened at the outcome. But he says he would do it again tomorrow if asked.
“I have three girls of my own. It would be nice if something happened to my own kids that someone out there would donate their marrow if needed,” Camacho said.
For Dan Rosales, his marrow donation was personal. In 1999, Rosales was contacted by a family member to let him know that the daughter of a friend needed a bone marrow transplant. Rosales knew nothing about the bone marrow transplant procedure or even what a match was.
“I had never really taken the time to find out,” he said. “And unfortunately that’s how most of us operate. It’s when we get the call or when something happens that we actually have to react. All I did was answer the call. I said, ‘of course where do I need to be? What do I need to do?’ And I showed up. I took the first step. For me it was a no brainer. I’ve got two baby girls, little angels to me, that I would hope if I ever needed somebody to step up and take that first step that whoever I would contact would do that for me. I say that only because I want people to take action now. I don’t want people to wait for that call and if so, let this be that call.”
Rosales was not a match in 1999 and did not get called to actually donate until 2009. He flew from his home in New Mexico to Cook Children’s to allow for the harvest of his cells. The surgery to harvest his bone marrow took place on Nov. 20, 2009. On Dec. 24, 2009, he received a phone call that the surgery on a 2-year old little girl was a success and she was being sent home for Christmas.
“That was a wonderful Christmas gift for me and for my family,” Rosales said. “I got an email this past week that she continues to do well and that she has signed off on her release of information so I’ll actually be able to communicate shortly with her family and I will be able to see this baby girl. I look forward to that moment.