When a Sister Becomes a Lifesaver

October 9, 2017 | by Deborah Stambler

Jim Alder Bone Marrow Recipient | City of Hope Jim Alder with his sister and bone marrow donor, Mary Jo Barnett
Jim Alder wouldn’t describe himself as a lifesaver. That’s what he calls his sister, Mary Jo Barnett.

In May 2016, Barnett became Alder’s bone marrow donor and saved his life. Since then, he’s been working to share a simple message with the world: It’s easy it to become a donor.


A Troubling Diagnosis

Alder was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2009.

“For the next six years, I saw my oncologist regularly and took some medications to keep everything in check,” Alder said. “I felt good – no pain. I went about my life as normal as anyone. In 2015, things started to change. My bloodwork was abnormal and my meds had to be modified. I had a stroke and my vision became compromised.”

Finally, Alder’s knee began to swell, which necessitated a trip the emergency room. His chronic myeloid had developed into the acute variety (acute myeloid leukemia - AML). At that point, he made the journey to City of Hope and met Ryotaro Nakamura, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.

Alder said that he knew right away that he was in the right place.

“City of Hope was really responsive to my needs,” he said. He laughed as he pointed out that they have more boxes of Kleenex in the public areas than probably any other place on earth.

Alder spent four months in the hospital. In the course of his treatment, he had dozens of blood transfusions and nine biopsies, but in the end, it was a bone marrow transplant that would save his life. Out of eight siblings, only his sister Mary Jo Barnett was a match.


Making a Match

Alder described the day that they collected Barnett’s stem cells:

“She showed up at the Michael Amini Transfusion Medicine Center, got into a very comfortable bed and a nurse put teensy, weensy needles in her right hand and left arm and began the lifesaving process. They circulated her blood for five hours. After watching two first-run movies and taking a couple of naps, she was done.”

Barnett was 65 at the time and the day after the harvesting, she was out on a two-hour bike ride. She and Alder want people to understand that being a donor isn’t the same difficult process it used to be. Peripheral blood stem cell transplants (PBSCT), like Barnett underwent, involve finding a donor match and using medications prior to the transplant to stimulate stem cell production. The harvesting process lasts four to six hours.


Finding a Voice

Alder recalled seeing a young boy in the hospital during his stay. The following year at the annual reunion for bone marrow transplant recipients, Alder learned that the boy had died without having found a donor.

“I knew in my heart that here in metropolitan Los Angeles there were one or two people walking around who would have been a match for that kid,” Alder said. “But he didn’t have a chance because those people weren’t on the list.

"When I’m out every day, if I’m in the market or standing in line, I’ll start a conversation and before I’m done, I’ll have told them that I’m a cancer survivor. I’ll tell them how easy it is to be a donor. Especially if they’re young. I made these little cards that say "BeTheMatch.org" on them and it has the phone number. I don’t know if anybody acts on that or not, but it’s something now that I’m compelled to do because I’d be dead if it weren’t for my sister.”

Alder had to learn to deal with being legally blind as a result of his AML, and he spent more than four months in a wheelchair during his recovery. He still goes to City of Hope once a month for checkups.

But for all the things AML took away, it also gave Alder a voice. His job now, he says, is to educate others on how easy it is to become a donor. And that makes Alder not just a survivor, but a lifesaver, too.

To register as a donor, visit the National Marrow Donor Program at City of Hope or BeTheMatch.org.
 
 
 

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