Chris Smith donated bone marrow to Sue Vanvolkingburgh in 2004. They met for the first time in 2005 and have been good friends ever since.Handout photo
Sue Vanvolkingburgh met the man who saved her life for the first time more than a year after he did the saving.
This was in September 2005 in front of hundreds of people at a gala in at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
It was literally the three-minute hug, recalls Chris Smith, the man who donated his bone marrow to a woman he had never met.
Now, 14 years later, the pair still consider themselves blood siblings. They meet as often as possible. Their families have reunited for trips to baseball games, amusement parks and Vanvolkingburghs 50th birthday party.
Because Smiths marrow now produces her blood cells, Vanvolkingburgh now has Smiths blood type.
I call him my blood brother, said Vanvolkingburgh, a CHEO nurse who wlil turn 56 this week. I have his DNA in my blood. Im a bit of a hybrid.
Just last week, Smith, now 61 and retired from a job as a Canada Post supervisor, reunited with Vanvolkingburgh in Ottawa for a hockey game, touristy activities around Parliament Hill and a golf tournament for the Bruce Denniston Bone Marrow Society, a charity that raises money to promote donor matches and is named after an RCMP member who was diagnosed with leukemia in 1987.
In 2003, Vanvolkingburgh was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a blood disorder that occurs when the body stops producing enough new blood cells. The only option was a bone marrow transplant. She needed a sibling match or an anonymous donor. Doctors found her match on the donor registry.
Unknown to Vanvolkingburgh, her match had a story of his own. Smith, who lived in Barrie, Ont., had a niece who had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia. There were nine siblings in his family and they all signed up for the bone marrow registry. His niece was successfully treated without a transplant, but Smith thought there might be other people who might need his bone marrow.
In 2004, Smith received the call to ask if he was still interested in donating. I did what I had to (do) to give that person an opportunity, he said.
By the time Vanvolkingburgh was a candidate for transplant, she was transfusion-dependent. To prepare for the transplant, she was given high doses of chemotherapy and underwent full-body radiation. After the transplant, there was nothing to do but watch and wait in isolation. She was in hospital for 2 1/2 months.
At first, Vanvolkingburgh was told the donation would remain anonymous. Then she received a card through One Match (now Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry) with all the identifying information blacked out. On the card, her donor said his family was praying for her.
I felt humbled and overwhelmed, she says now.
In 2005, Smith and Vanvolkingburgh both received a neutrally-phrased letter saying they could exchange information if they wanted. They agreed, and One Match sent them mailing addresses.
Vanvolkingburgh said she struggled over what to tell her donor. You say, Thank you, to the grocery clerk. I was having problems with even how to begin to say, Thank you.
Later that year, Smith and Vanvolkingburgh were asked if they were willing to meet for the first time. It happened at a gala at the Canadian War Museum in September in front of an audience that included members from the clinical team that treated Vanvolkingburgh.
Since 2016, Canadian Blood Services has had 410 requests for donors and recipients to exchange information, but had only 275 completed requests with contact information provided to both donor and recipient.
Its impossible to say how many donor recipient pairs have actually made contact, said Heidi Elmoazzen, director for stem cells at Canadian Blood Services. Because registries are international, it may be difficult for many people to meet face-to-face, she said. The Canadian registrys policy is to wait a year after a transplant to accept requests. It may be longer for other registries, and some dont allow that information to be exchanged.
For Vanvolkingburgh and Smith, meeting was the start of a friendship between two families. Both have three children and three grandchildren. They share sorrows and joys. Everyone in both families has registered for bone marrow donation.
No one of us knows what tragedy will strike a family member, Smith said.
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