There was no reason for Meghan Shaffer and Wendy Hancock to know each other. After all, they had nothing in common. Wendy lived in Pennsylvania and had recently given birth. Meghan was a young nursing student at the University of Michigan. But Fate had other plans for them.
How It All Started
Shortly after her daughter was born in June 2011, Wendy developed a fever that wouldn’t go away. Antibiotics didn’t seem to solve the problem and a “ton of tests” all came back negative. But she continued to run a fever and was in increasing pain. Finally, four weeks after giving birth, “the bone pain was so bad, I couldn’t move,” she recalled. A subsequent bone marrow biopsy revealed that she had leukemia.
Wendy was admitted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania emergently and started chemotherapy. To give her the best chance of being cured, her oncologist, Selina Luger, MD, director of Penn’s Leukemia Program, determined that Wendy would need a bone marrow transplant as part of her treatment. Her name was immediately entered into Be the Match (a part of the National Marrow Donor Program). She continued to receive treatment for her leukemia while they looked for a donor. By October they had found a match.
A Chance Occurence
In 2010, Meghan was heading to class when she noticed a group of students asking people to become bone marrow donors. She stopped, had her cheek swabbed, and continued on her way, not giving it a second thought.
A year and a half later, in the fall of 2011, she got a call from Be the Match, asking if she would come in for additional testing. The results from this subsequent blood test – followed by a thorough physical (“The longest one of my life.”) -- showed she was, indeed, a good match and healthy enough to donate. “I didn’t think I’d be called when I signed up but once I found out I was a match, how could I say no? I just asked ‘What do I have to do and when?’”
How A Match is Made
When it comes to compatibility between donor and recipient, bone marrow transplants have stringent requirements. Ironically, matching blood type is unimportant. The essential components are human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), which are proteins that serve as markers on most cells in a person’s body. The immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong in your body (or don’t) and also play a role in stimulating the development of antibodies, which can lead to organ rejection. Prior to any transplant at HUP – bone marrow or solid organ – its HLA lab performs high-resolution typing to confirm antigens in both patients and potential donors.
A “perfect” donor for a bone marrow transplant, said Joanne Hinkle, BSN, OCN, CHTC, coordinator of Unrelated Bone Marrow Donor, matches 10 specific antigens. Although Be the Match has 13 million potential donors throughout the country (worldwide it’s 20 million!), finding a “10” can be difficult. “Sometimes I find no potential ‘complete’ match donors; other times I could receive a list of 100.”
Be the Match found several potential matches for Wendy. After additional testing narrowed the possibilities to three, Joanne and David Porter, MD, director of Blood and Marrow Transplantation at Penn chose the one who was young, a woman, and available to donate the marrow at the right time for Wendy’s treatment (At HUP, bone marrow is infused within 48 hours of the donation), all important factors.
The week before the infusion, in preparation for the bone marrow transplant, Wendy received additional chemotherapy that wiped out not only her cancer cells but also the white blood cells in her immune system. For the three weeks following the infusion of Meghan’s healthy bone marrow, Wendy stayed in a quarantined, protective environment at HUP, waiting for the new bone marrow to produce sufficient white blood cells to protect her from infections. Finally, in November 2011, that day arrived and she was discharged. “Just in time for Thanksgiving… and what a laundry list of things to be thankful for!” she said.
“I’m Your Donor”
Over the next several months, Wendy’s life slowly returned to normal, caring for her baby and planning her wedding to fiance Nathan. But she still wanted to know more about her donor. In fact, “as soon as I knew I had a donor, I wanted to get in touch,” she said. “It was amazing that she did that.”
Similarly, Meghan knew little about the woman who would receive her bone marrow. “They told me she was a 36-year-old woman who was a new mom,” she said, but she longed to learn more. She received occasional updates about the woman after the transplant and the two exchanged brief notes through Be the Match but never knew each other’s name or address.
It was always “Dear Donee” and “Dear Donor,” Wendy said. “I just kept telling them ‘I want to meet my donor.’”
Be the Match requires donors and recipients to wait a full year before they’ll release names. Both Wendy and Meghan signed the forms allowing their personal information to be released to one another. Processing took another few months.
Then, in January 2013, Wendy was cooking dinner when the phone rang. “I picked it up and heard, ‘Hi. My name is Meghan. I’m your donor.’ I started crying and just kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you….”
They talked for over an hour. Wendy ultimately invited Meghan to her 2013 spring wedding in Savannah. “I told her it would be an honor if she came. I wouldn’t be having a wedding if it weren’t for her.” Meghan accepted and that was the start of what has become an enduring friendship. “I had butterflies when we first met in Savannah, but we became instant best friends,” Meghan said.
Since the wedding, Wendy and Meghan have visited each other a couple times, and talk on the phone and email frequently. Come this spring, Wendy and Nathan will attend Meghan’s wedding. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Wendy said.
Photo caption: Bone marrow donor Meghan Shaffer (l.) attended the wedding of recipient Wendy Hancock last spring.