April 11, 2014 | by Nicole White
George Winston, known worldwide for his impressionistic, genre-defying music, considers music to be his first language, and admits he often stumbles over words – especially when he attempts languages other than English.
There’s one German phrase he’s determined to perfect, however: danke schön.
Winston thinks he’ll have it mastered by his first face-to-face meeting with the 20-year-old German woman who donated the bone marrow that saved his life. The two will meet at City of Hope's Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, officially called a Celebration of Life, on May 9.
The annual event celebrates the recipients of bone marrow, stem cell and cord blood transplants, and the donors who made the lifesaving procedures possible. It draws thousands of transplant recipients back to City of Hope. As a world leader in hematopoietic cell transplants, City of Hope has conducted almost 12,000 of the procedures.
Wilson’s excitement is almost palpable. So far, he knows only a few things about his donor – she’s a young woman, she’s from Germany, and she saved his life.
“She’s a world away, and we’ve never met, but we’re, in a way, ‘genetic twins,’” said the 65-year-old Winston of his donor, marveling at this new connection. “It’s amazing how they can locate a donor. I can’t wait to meet her and just thank her from the bottom of my heart.”
A tour that didn't go as planned
The self-described “rural folk musician,” who has recorded more than 20 albums on piano, guitar and harmonica, recalls the ordeal that led to his transplant. He had been suffering from low platelets when he embarked on a four-month tour in 2012.
Already a thyroid and skin cancer survivor, Winston knew that his platelet count had been dropping over several years, but says he hoped he could endure a little longer to get through his concert dates – against the advice, he admits, of his doctors here. (“A surgeon wouldn’t skip surgery,” he says, grinning, as he explains that he just couldn’t bring himself to miss a tour and doing what he loves most.)
On Thanksgiving 2012, he was playing in Idaho. He barely made it through the second half of his performance.
Afterward, lying on the floor of his dressing room, he realized he would not be able to complete his tour.
“It was like carrying in the grocery bags from the car – you always make it, but then that’s it – I’d hit bottom,” he said. “I got a plane, flew to Ontario airport and went out to City of Hope. That’s where I wanted to be more than anywhere else.”
Winston was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition in which the bone marrow doesn’t produce enough healthy blood cells. The disease often results in low red blood cell, white blood cell and platelet counts – and the mature blood cells that are produced often do not function properly. The depleted blood cells leave the immune system greatly weakened, and about 30 percent of myelodysplastic syndrome cases progress to acute myeloid leukemia.
In Winston's case, with his immune system crippled and with his body fighting multiple infections, he had to recover before he could receive his bone marrow transplant.
The transplant ultimately was performed by Stephen J. Forman, M.D., Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, and Winston spent a portion of his recovery in "the Village," City of Hope’s on-site temporary housing for patients and their families.
The comforts of home, with friends
Wilson appreciated the time at City of Hope – enjoying almost all the comforts of home while making new friends. While recovering, he wrote a series of songs on a piano in the medical center’s auditorium, and later visited patients to play guitar or harmonica for them. When he returns to the medical center for follow-up visits, he makes regular rounds to talk with friends he made on the staff, sharing a song or his latest CD.
That interlude between illness and health still connects him to City of Hope – and to the music he has yet to share.
“I figure I have a dozen or more albums to finish,” he said. “I’m so grateful that now I will have a chance to finish them.”
He says he looks forward to meeting his donor so he can give her his thanks – and some CDs.
And watch Stephen J. Forman's explanation of the power behind City of Hope's BMT reunion.