Leukemia survivor meets his stem cell donor for first time
Mike Ansley is a 42-year-old retired Naval officer from Chesapeake, Va., who runs marathons and rides his bike for 100 miles at a time. He’s a fit family man.
But in January of 2011, Ansley realized he was getting winded during his physical training. He went for a checkup, and the doctor frantically called him hours later, saying he needed to get to the hospital to get his blood checked.
He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and during a journey of chemotherapy treatments and intense steroid reactions, extreme emotional lows and highs with his family, and losing and gaining 60 pounds, doctors suggested he receive a blood stem cell transplant.
During the 16th patient reunion Saturday held by Duke Medicine’s Adult Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, Ansley met his stem cell donor for the first time. Before that afternoon, it was a faceless person who saved his life, who gave their blood without question to mix with his.
The Adult Blood and Marrow Transplant Program uses bone marrow, cord blood or stem cell donations to treat leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. The donors either go through a 6-hour procedure that’s comparable to giving blood or surgery that withdraws liquid marrow from the person’s pelvic bone.
For a whole year, the donors and the receiving patients are completely anonymous to each other. If they send each other cards through BetheMatch.org, the blood and marrow donation organization, their last names and addresses are redacted.
For the longest time, Ansley thought his donor was German. The stem cells that saved him could have come from across the world or close to home, and his family could only guess, like a needle in a haystack, who was their savior.
Ansley, after his transplant procedure in August of 2011, even sent his anonymous donor a card in German that Christmas. Guten Tag, he wrote. Danke.
But his donor was actually living just a few states away, in Rutland, Mass. Where Ansley was a Navy man, his donor, David Gaumond, had a few years of experience in the Army’s 1st Armored Division.
Within the packed Durham Convention Center conference room Saturday, while hundreds of people, both patients and their families, finished lunch, Ansley stepped up to the lectern to talk about his unknown blood brother, the man whose blood keeps any leukemia that may be running through his veins at bay.
“I made the most out of a bad situation, and there’s nothing heroic about that,” Ansley said. “I’m not sure how many would donate to someone in the blind. Would you? … (My donor) rose to the challenge and faced the unknown, even when he didn’t have to. That’s a true hero.”
Gaumond was in the audience, listening to Ansley’s words. They had never met before, until that moment. Gaumond walked up to the stage, and the two men shook hands, then hugged. Ansley’s face was flush with emotion.
“I’m just happy everything worked out, and it was simple. It was easy,” Gaumond said about donating. He was called upon to donate a year after he signed up. In most cases, a decade can pass before people on the donor list are called to action.
“Sometimes the Army has to come bail out the Navy, and sometimes the Navy has to bail out the Army,” Ansley joked.
The room full of cancer survivors and transplant recipients took photographs with each other. Some had their donors with them, who had traveled from as far as Germany. Earlier that day, patients talked about their quality of life after going through their individual transplant procedures. But at the end of the program, patients, new and old, took turns at the microphone and shared their journeys of survival with others.
Duke Dr. David Rizzieri said Ansley’s fight for survival had been its own marathon. Rizzieri has been at Duke since 1994, and since then, he’s helped grow the transplant program and its care and treatment offerings.
“It’s more of a renewal experience for staff,” Rizzieri said of the annual reunion. “When you’re in the trenches every day, you can lose sight of the long-term battle.”
A 76-year-old man shared with the audience that he’s a living example that transplants can work on older patients. A woman from Tennessee said Duke helped her turn a hopeless and helpless situation, where she was told she had tumors growing in her lungs, liver, inside her pelvic bone and other places around her body, into a long, loving life. A female patient who is in leukemia remission said she now helps with the Duke pet therapy program and visits children battling cancer.
The Gaumond and Ansley families sat at the same lunch table during the end of the program, saying they would gladly have each other as guests in Massachusetts and Virginia.
“It just feels like something you had to do,” Gaumond said of meeting Ansley. “…It just wouldn’t have felt right if you couldn’t finish it and meet the guy.”
And it’s about sharing the successes of a simple, anonymous gesture that saves lives.
“There’s a long-term possibility for us, and I think that’s the best reason for us to be down here today,” Ansley said.