Gavin Wolfrank spent much of his four short years of life in hospital rooms and chemotherapy sessions. If he was ever to make it past cancer and on to kindergarten, the boy and his parents needed a miracle match: the right man or woman to donate bone marrow for a transplant.
And City of Hope staff found one — half a world away.
Marrow donor Catherine Benson holds patient Gavin Wolfrank. (Photo by Thomas Brown)
Donor Catherine Benson, of Essex, England, offered the cells that became Gavin’s lifeline in 2010. Her ultimate gift helped reset his blood and immune system and eliminate the leukemia that dominated his early days and years. Now age 6 and cancer-free, Gavin finally met Benson for the first time at City of Hope’s 36th Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion on May 11.
The event brought hundreds of transplant patients, family members, friends and staff together at City of Hope’s Duarte campus for a picnic, entertainment and celebration of life. The joyful reunion, like bone marrow transplantation itself, has become an international affair.
“More than 1,000 of our transplants have been from international donors,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., chair of the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation and Francis and Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. “This emphasizes how small the world has become.”
Gavin’s story underscores those words — and goes back to the very origins of the bone marrow registry movement. It began in the 1970s when another little boy, this time in England, desperately needed donated cells to fight his rare blood disease.
The boy, Anthony Nolan, ultimately died, but his famous case inspired thousands in the United Kingdom and beyond to sign up as potential bone marrow donors through the world’s first marrow donor registry, which was created by Anthony’s mother. By 2009, the number of registries worldwide had grown to 76, and today, some 42 percent of matched unrelated donor bone marrow transplants involve donors and recipients from different countries, according to the World Marrow Donor Association.
Benson’s own mother and grandmother were so moved by Anthony’s story in the ‘70s that they were among the first to register as potential donors. But it would take nearly four decades for their decision to save a boy’s life — and it happened through Catherine Benson, who carried on her family tradition by signing up for the registry at age 18.
Her donation for Gavin, made in 2010, was her second match and donation to a patient. It drove her to fly to California in May for the transplant reunion’s annual press conference, which brings together two pairs of donors and recipients who have never met.
As Gavin stood expectantly with his parents, Ken and Diana Wolfrank, and his big sister Emma on a stage in the Rose Garden, Benson popped out from behind the stage. She threw her arms open and hugged both parents, one at a time, and lifted Gavin up and squeezed him.
“Last year, we stood here and watched two patients meet their donors,” Diana Wolfrank said tearfully. “We thought, ‘Wow, maybe someday we could meet ours.
“We’ve been thinking about this person, Catherine, for two years,” she added. “Our donor lives through our son, Gavin, and she’s now part of our family.”
Forman put the international gift simply: “Catherine, you’ve got a lot of relatives now — and fans.”
|Women united across the country by cells |
Julie Dresner, 61, longed for clues about the “magnanimous angel” whose donated bone marrow saved her life. Yet all she knew was that her donor was 39 years old, nearly the same age Dresner was when she was first diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
Julie Dresner, right, and Michelle Miller speak to members of the media. (Photo by Thomas Brown)Dresner, then a Hollywood costumer and mother of a little girl, underwent chemotherapy for her cancer in 1988. She went through it again when she had recurrences in 1991, 1999 and 2007. Finally she underwent a transplant using her own cells in 2009. Unfortunately, she developed acute myeloid leukemia the next year and needed a transplant using a donor’s cells.
The 2011 transplant happened thanks to Michelle Miller of Providence, R.I., who had signed up for the Be The Match bone marrow registry through a drive at her synagogue. Dresner met Miller for the first time at a press conference at City of Hope’s 36th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion on May 11.
Dresner’s donor was no stranger to cancer. When Miller was only a teen, her sister developed the disease. And shortly after getting married, Miller learned her husband had a brain tumor. Today, both sister and husband are healthy, but the experience sealed Miller’s desire to help others with cancer.
At the press conference, Miller excitedly embraced Dresner and her husband, Paul Maibaum.
“Today is a dream come true,” Dresner told media and staff gathered at the event. “City of Hope has been a godsend to me.”
Thanks to Miller’s gift, Dresner now lives in Malibu, Calif., with her husband, a cinematographer, and works as a jewelry designer. Her blood type has changed from B to O, but other than that, she has returned to normality with gratitude. “Cancer didn’t ruin my life,” she said. “I never wanted to be Mrs. Cancer-pants.”