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Published January 04, 2013, 11:35 PM

Son meets man whose stem cells helped father beat rare blood cancer

FARGO – Peter Matthaei got up at 4 a.m. local time for the five-hour drive from Munich, Germany, to meet the man who saved his father’s life. “Here’s this guy from the other side of the world knocking on his door saying, ‘Thanks for saving my dad’s life,’ ” says the 28-year-old Horace man.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO – Peter Matthaei got up at 4 a.m. local time for the five-hour drive from Munich, Germany, to meet the man who saved his father’s life.

“Here’s this guy from the other side of the world knocking on his door saying, ‘Thanks for saving my dad’s life,’ ” says the 28-year-old Horace man.

Four years ago, Bill Matthaei of West Fargo, now 65, received stem cells from a donor who joined a registry to “make a difference in the world” and set an example for his twin daughters.

With guidance from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, those cells helped Bill beat a rare blood cancer.

“We’re blessed that he was able to make it through it,” Peter says.

Once the Matthaei family learned the donor’s identity, Peter scrambled to arrange a meeting.

“It was like 20 minutes before I was supposed to get on the airplane for Germany, and I called him on Skype and talked to his daughter,” he says.

So while Peter was traveling to Europe to attend the world’s largest bakery show with the family business, Dakota Specialty Milling, he made the extra trip to Grasleben to meet the donor and his family.

“Everyone told us it was too far, but we made it, and it was a really neat experience to meet them in person. They’re very proud of what they did, and we’re very thankful for what they did,” he says.

Diagnosis to donation

In one summer, Peter’s dad went from peak health and fitness to a cancer diagnosis with a bleak prognosis.

“It was more or less a death sentence. It was really scary,” Peter says.

Bill’s blood tests showed that he had plasma cell leukemia, an extreme form of multiple myeloma. The aggressive disease originates in the bone marrow and moves into the blood stream.

“It’s a very, very rare cancer. In fact, the way they put it was, ‘Most oncologists will never see a case of plasma cell leukemia in their whole career,’ ” he says.

Bill, then 61, started chemotherapy right away but was told that his best chance of survival would be a double stem cell transplant.

“I describe it kind of like walking a tightrope. They want to kill the disease and not kill the patient,” he says.

The first transplant, using Bill’s own cells, was done in April 2009, followed by the second, using the donor’s cells, in July 2009.

“Following the transplant, they did no further treatment for the disease itself,” he says.

Though Bill continues to take several medications to prevent infection and graft vs. host disease, he’s slowly tapering them off, and he’s been cancer-free since May 2012.

“For the most part, I’m able to live a normal life. I don’t have a lot of strength or energy, but that will return with time,” he says.

He’s able to work almost full time as the chairman and CEO of Dakota Specialty Milling, spending about two-thirds of the month here and one-third in Tacoma, Wash.

“Every day, he sets a new world record for longest survival of plasma cell leukemia because he’s basically the only person who’s ever survived the disease,” Peter says.

Both he and his sister are on the international bone marrow and stem cell donation registry. Neither was a close enough match for their father, but they may be called upon someday to donate to someone else.

“Obviously, stem cell research is still somewhat controversial here in the U.S., but I don’t care what other people say, it saved my dad’s life,” he says.

Online

For more information or to join the registry, log on to bethematch.com.


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

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