A bone marrow transplant can be life-changing for the donor, too

May 6, 2016 | by Letisia Marquez

Vanessa Brobbey - bmt donor

In 2014, Vanessa Brobbey was a recent high school graduate who felt like she was just “roaming around the Earth,” without much of a plan or purpose. She had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.

For years, Vanessa, the daughter of a Ghanaian couple who immigrated to Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and her family struggled financially. Vanessa herself works two jobs, while attending university, to help her parents make ends meet. She often babysits her two youngest siblings so her mother can work at night and take English classes during the day. Faced with these challenges in her young life, Vanessa didn’t see much hope for her future.

But one email would change how she felt about her life – and give her a profound sense of direction.

During her senior year in high school, Vanessa had registered to be a potential bone marrow donor, but then, as she puts it, “I forgot about it for the longest time.”

A couple of years later, she received an email from the donor center, letting her know that a possible match had been found.

At first, Vanessa, who was 19 at the time of the donation and is now 20, felt excited about the prospect of donating bone marrow to save someone’s life. But as the date of the donation neared, she started to worry.

Because Vanessa was donating to a young boy, her stem cells were harvested directly from her bone marrow while she was under general anesthesia in outpatient surgery. This more traditional method of donating was chosen to avoid any potential complications from graft-versus-host disease, which can occur in children after a transplant.

“I hesitated for a few days but then it dawned on me – I realized it’s for a good cause because what the patient is going through is probably far worse than what I’m going to go through,” Vanessa said.

The actual procedure was not as difficult as Vanessa thought it would be. She also relished knowing that she had saved someone’s life.

After her recovery, she contacted the donor center to find out who her bone marrow recipient was. But the center told her that she would have to wait a year to find out more about the patient. The only thing they could tell Vanessa was that the patient was doing well.

“Every few months, I would contact the donor center to find out how my patient was doing,” she said. “And then I started to count down the days until I could meet him or her.”

One day, during a break at one of her several jobs, Vanessa started watching videos of patients and donors meeting for the first time at City of Hope’s annual bone marrow transplantation Reunions. When she started crying, her co-workers looked at her, she said, like she was crazy, until she explained: “You guys don’t understand how special this is to me. I’ve always wanted to help people so the fact that I saved somebody’s life is one step closer to me becoming a nurse and saving other people’s lives.”

Up until I donated, I honestly believed that I was useless and then, all of sudden, I get an email from the donor center,” she said. “At that moment, I felt like, my purpose in life is to help people. It’s reassurance that this is what I’m supposed to do – become a pediatric nurse."

Today, Vanessa finally met Dominick, the 15-year-old patient who had a relapse of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and whose life she helped save, at City of Hope’s 40th Annual Bone Marrow Transplantation Reunion. She has given him something he could only dream of when he was sick and in the hospital – another chance at life.

Dominick, who until recently had an unstable family life, now attends high school, plays sports and is in the process of being adopted by Jeanelle Folbrecht, a City of Hope psychologist, and her family.

“This person now has a part of me in them that is helping them live,” Vanessa said. “It’s been such an amazing experience, and one that I think everyone should have. It’s honestly a life changer.”

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If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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Pictured: Vanessa Brobbey, bone marrow donor

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