Colleen LeCours lay in a hospital bed at the General campus of The Ottawa Hospital on August 12, 2016, waiting for the only thing that could save her life a stem cell transplant from a stranger.
The donor could be anywhere in the world if a related blood donor cant be found, the call to find a match goes out to registries all over the globe and the donated stem cells are rushed across international borders.
What LeCours didnt know is that her donor, an 18-year-old Carleton University student named Timothy White, was just one floor below. Similarly, White didnt know that his recipient was in the same hospital.
There are currently more than 450,000 people on the Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry formerly known as OneMatch and 36 million on affiliated international registries. Still, some people never find a match. There are more than 900 Canadians in need of a transplant who have not found a match anywhere in the world.
What were the odds that the match for LeCours, now 57, would be found in the same city?
Astronomical, she said.
The chances that White would even ever be asked to donate were also very low only about one in a thousand. After he agreed to donate, he was not told where the recipient might be. I was told the recipient could be anywhere. They could be in Africa, said White, now 22 and a recent graduate in computer science.
White had signed up for the registry through a cheek swab booth at ComiCon less than six months earlier. A smart place to recruit would-be stem cell donors, he notes. The optimal donor is a male between the age of 17 and 35 and thats the ComiCon demographic.
He decided to register as a potential donor because he grew up in the scouting movement. One of the main philosophies is to do a good turn every day, he said.
The donation was a non-surgical procedure in which Whites blood was removed though a needle, the stem cells were separated from his blood and the remaining blood components returned to his body through another needle. The procedure started at about 8 a.m. and was over by about 5 p.m.
I figured if I gave someone a day for a thousand more days (of life) then I felt it was a fair trade. I have many years of life. Why not spend one day? said White.
LeCourss medical journey started in 2009 with an emergency room visit for abdominal pain. She was eventually diagnosed with Stage 4 follicular lymphoma, a blood cancer that affects infection-fighting white blood cells. At the time, LeCours was working for Gov.-Gen. Michalle Jean and was able to stay on the job most of the time during her six months of treatment.
Four years later, the lymphoma returned. It was back again two years after that, in a more aggressive form. The only treatment was stem cell transplant.
There are two main kinds of stem cell transplants autologous and allogenic. In an autologous transplant, stem cells are collected from a patients own blood and reintroduced after being treated to remove cancer cells. In an allogenic stem cell transplant, the stem cells come from a donor.
At this point, LeCours was a candidate for an autologous transplant. Once again, she underwent aggressive chemotherapy. A year later, the cancer returned.
Doctors told LeCours there wasnt much else they could do and advised her to get her affairs in order. But the hospitals transplant team felt she could be a candidate for an allogenic transplant. Theres risk rejecting donated stem cells can be fatal to the patient.
LeCours learned that her brother was a match. But the medical work-up would last about three months and she couldnt wait that long.
I wasnt sure I wanted to do it but I didnt have much choice, she said. They said, We have someone waiting in the wings.
And I said, He probably has wings.
After the transplant, LeCours recovered as an outpatient in the home of her brother and sister-in-law. It took three months to rebuild her immune system. Her only rejection symptoms were a bit of skin irritation.
In January 2018, LeCours received an email asking if she would like to exchange contact information with her donor. She replied that she would.
A few months later, she got a message with Whites co-ordinates and was astonished to find that her donor was in Ottawa. It took her a few weeks to formulate an email.
I didnt want to scare him. I just wanted him to know how incredibly grateful I was. And I wanted to pay it forward, said LeCours.
After careful consideration, she sent White an email on Oct. 8, 2018.
Today, being Thanksgiving, I have so much to be thankful for, namely you giving your stem cells and saving my life and the success of the stem cells grafting to my bone marrow, LeCours wrote. I cant thank you enough for your wonderful selfless act.
Stem cell donor 18-year-old Carleton University student Timothy White at The Ottawa Hospital, General campus, donating stem cells for Colleen LeCours in August 2016. At the time he did not know that LeCours would be the recipient. Courtesy Timothy White.jpg
She added that she didnt know anything about him except for his name and email address, and asked if they could meet. They got together for the first time over lunch in a burger restaurant.
As soon as I saw him, I broke down, said LeCours.
It has been three and a half years since the transplant and LeCours remains in remission. She invited White to her familys Thanksgiving this year, and the two meet to catch up every few months. Its one of the quirks of stem cell donation that the recipient assumes the blood type of the donor. LeCours, once O-positive, now has blood type A-negative, like White.
Im a grandmother. The fact that my grandson has his moma is huge.
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