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Published October 25, 2012, 11:40 PM

Saving a stranger: Fargo woman donates stem cells to man in Germany

FARGO - Tonya and Christa Mullins’ “girls’ weekend” in Washington, D.C., may have saved the life of a stranger living thousands of miles away. While the Fargo sisters-in-law watched “The Hunger Games” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” 39-year-old Tonya donated over a billion stem cells to be sent to a 45-year-old male in Germany with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO - Tonya and Christa Mullins’ “girls’ weekend” in Washington, D.C., may have saved the life of a stranger living thousands of miles away.

While the Fargo sisters-in-law watched “The Hunger Games” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” 39-year-old Tonya donated over a billion stem cells to be sent to a 45-year-old male in Germany with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

“I think it was really affirming for her, to be able to help someone else even though it was anonymous,” 26-year-old Christa says.

Four years ago, Tonya joined Be The Match, a donor registry operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, after a friend’s brother died waiting for a bone marrow match.

“In honor of him, several of us signed up to be matches,” she says.

Thousands of patients with blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, sickle cell and other life-threatening diseases depend on the Be The Match registry, the world’s largest listing of potential marrow donors and donated cord blood units, to find a match.

This summer, Tonya was surprised but excited when she received an email telling her she was a possible match for someone and asking if she’d take a blood test to confirm it.

“I kind of figured I wasn’t ever going to get notified,” she says.

Because the markers used to match donors to recipients are inherited, Be The Match says patients are more likely to match someone from their own ancestry.

“I’m full-blooded German, so that probably had a lot to do with why I matched with him,” says Tonya, a married mother of four and grandmother of one.

In order to prep for the donation, Tonya had to get injections of filgrastim, a growth-factor drug that causes the bone marrow to make and release stem cells into the blood.

“Walking into (Sanford’s Roger Maris Cancer Center) every morning was a very humbling experience. I was going in there to get some shots, and the people in there are fighting for their lives,” Tonya says.

The shots did cause bone pain and fatigue, but she was prepared for that and was placed on a cycle of ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

“By the time I left (for Washington in August to make the stem cell donation), I was pretty wiped out and in pain,” she says.

For about four hours, Tonya was hooked up to a machine that separates the stem cells from the other blood cells. The stem cells are sent to the recipient, and the rest of the blood is returned to the donor.

It’s similar to donating plasma. “They just took blood out of one arm and put it back in the other,” sister-in-law Christa says.

Tonya says Christa stayed with her the whole time, watching movies, giving her drinks through a straw because she couldn’t move her arms during the process, and updating her family on how she was doing.

“I felt like it was my job to keep the mood light and keep her positive,” though Tonya seemed strong and happy, Christa says.

Seeing Tonya donate stem cells helped dispel some of Christa’s fears about it.

“It took away some of the thoughts that I had about it being a scary process, and it turned out to be really positive,” she says, adding that she’d consider signing up with Be The Match, too.

By German law, Tonya won’t get an update on her recipient for six months, unless he dies. In that case, she’ll be informed.

“Even though that would be hard, it would still be worth it to give someone that opportunity,” Christa says.

Otherwise, donor and recipient can send generic letters and after two years they’re allowed to request information about each other.

“He’s got a really long recovery time ahead of him,” Tonya says. “My understanding is that in order to prepare for it, they have to essentially kill all of the bone marrow in his body through chemotherapy.”

Meanwhile, Tonya will be “on hold” for a year in case he needs another donation, whether it’s more stem cells, whole blood or bone marrow.

“I would totally do it again, and I would encourage everybody to sign up to be a donor,” she says.


Online

For more information or to join the Be The Match registry, go to bethematch.com.

There’s an especially high need for donors between the ages of 18 and 44 because doctors choose registry members in that age group more than 90 percent of the time, the site says.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

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