Stem cell donor gives life and hope to a stranger

By Amy Forbus
Editor

Barbara Kirkpatrick doesn’t do needles. She can’t stand the sight of blood, either.

But near the end of 2013, she began a months-long process that involved plenty of both—all to save the life of someone she has yet to meet.

The seed for this experience was planted 14 years ago, when Barbara accompanied her husband, the Rev. Daniel Kirkpatrick, to a bone marrow donor drive being held for a member of the church where he was appointed at the time, Geyer Springs UMC Little Rock.

Daniel planned to join the bone marrow donor registry, but he learned his status as a diabetic disqualified him. He immediately turned to Barbara and began encouraging her to participate.

“Very reluctantly, I did it,” she said, because she knew that the blood sample taken by fingerstick might provide help for their friend, who had a form of leukemia. (These days, a swab of cells from inside the potential donor’s cheek is also accepted as a sample—no needles or blood involved.)

While their friend did not find a bone marrow match at that donor drive, some new treatments for his condition soon became available, and he is currently in remission.

Uneventful years

As time passed, Kirkpatrick received mail from Be the Match, the donor registry organization operated by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). As she and Daniel moved to serve at different churches, the communications followed her—to Hot Springs, then to Arkadelphia. After they left Arkadelphia, though, the magazines and letters stopped coming, and she didn’t give it much thought.

Until November 2013, that is, when a letter from Be the Match arrived in her mailbox in DeWitt, where they had moved in 2011. The letter requested that she call to update her contact information, and she complied.

About a week later, she heard from a Be the Match representative, notifying her that she was a possible donor for someone who needed a stem cell transplant. She verified that she was still willing to donate and answered a number of questions. The representative told her to not expect to hear anything more for about three months.

Kirkpatrick couldn’t shake the sense that something significant had just happened. “When I got off the phone I told my husband, ‘I have a feeling that this is it,’” she said.

A chance to help

Sure enough, the next week, a donor contact representative informed her that she was one of three potential donors for a 28-year-old woman with blood cancer. Once again, she verified that she was still willing to donate, and agreed to go to a clinic in Stuttgart to give several vials of blood for testing.

Just a week later, Kirkpatrick learned that she was the patient’s best match. The process that she had been told would unfold over several months had only taken a few weeks. In answer to her questions about the timing, the transplant counselor instructed her to go online to read about the type of blood cancer her potential recipient had.

She learned that for this patient’s diagnosis, life expectancy without a transplant was just months. Every week mattered.

The question and answer that began every conversation with Be the Match seemed all the more important:

“Are you still willing to donate?”

“Yes.”

Transplant time

By December, the patient’s medical team had targeted the transplant for the second week in February 2014. Kirkpatrick would make her peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation through a process called apheresis—similar to blood platelet donation, with no anesthesia or hospital stay required.

Kirkpatrick answered still more questions, completed more tests and took a physical exam. She was able to do most of the testing in DeWitt, with some trips to nearby Stuttgart. One week before the donation, she started receiving two injections per day to boost stem cell production.

Side effects of the injections included mild, flu-like symptoms: “Mainly just a dull headache, and a few achy joints, but that was really all,” she said. “I kept teaching during the whole thing.”

The night before President’s Day 2014, the Kirkpatricks, with Barbara’s sister along for moral support, arrived in Washington D.C. Both Barbara’s and Daniel’s expenses were covered by NMDP—from the airfare and the car service that ferried them from airport to hotel to hospital, all the way down to each bottle of water they would drink.

Barbara Kirkpatrick shows off her stem cells and platelets following her donation in February 2014. The cells were immediately transported via courier from the transplant center in Washington D.C. to a waiting transplant recipient in another state. COURTESY PHOTO

Barbara Kirkpatrick shows off her stem cells and platelets following her donation in February 2014. The cells were immediately transported via courier from the transplant center in Washington D.C. to a waiting transplant recipient in another state.
COURTESY PHOTO

They reported the next morning to the transplant center at Georgetown University Medical Center. Kirkpatrick received her last two injections, provided more blood samples and then started the donation. PBSC donation time is calculated based on the rate of harvesting stem cells compared with the number of cells the recipient needs. Her donation took five hours.

And Kirkpatrick will testify that she didn’t experience any pain during donation. “The only discomfort is that both arms have to be immobilized,” she said. “That was a little tricky.” But with a nurse dedicated solely to her care, and both her husband and her sister helping with things she couldn’t do, such as scratching her nose, the process went smoothly.

One way they passed the time was by reviewing Kirkpatrick’s spiritual support system. Her Bible study group and friends from her school had sent cards of inspiration and encouragement, and her sister held them up so she could see them all. “I felt like they were all there with me,” she said.

The doctor who oversaw the process came in to visit several times over the course of the donation.

“I said, ‘I really hope the patient does well with this,’ and she said, ‘Well, you know, Barbara, I’ll tell you this: All the patient and her family want is a little hope, and that’s what you’ve given them.’ And that’s what just stuck with me.”

Post-donation

When the donation was complete, a courier took it straight to the recipient’s location. The next morning, the counselor gave Kirkpatrick information about the transplant’s completion, with details withheld to maintain the recipient’s privacy.

Kirkpatrick received a letter written before the transplant by the recipient. The still-anonymous woman thanked her for her sacrifice, and let her know she would be thinking of her donor during the process.

“I don’t know your beliefs, but I just know that God brought us together and I’ll be eternally grateful,” the recipient wrote.

Kirkpatrick had sent her own anonymous letter through Be the Match to the transplant recipient, letting her know that she would be glad to donate again, as a second round of donor cells sometimes is needed.

After her flight home, Kirkpatrick spent the rest of the week recovering from the anemia caused by the donation. She returned to teaching the following Monday.

By six months following the transplant, the recipient had begun producing all of her own stem cells from Kirkpatrick’s donation.

“The counselor told me, ‘Barbara, you’ve given her six months of life that she would not have had,’” she said.

The anonymity surrounding the process does not have to last forever. One year after the procedure the donor and recipient may have direct contact, if both of them wish. And they did.

Kirkpatrick has exchanged cards and email messages with the recipient of her stem cells, who lives in New York state. They’ve learned that in addition to both being people of faith, they share teaching as their common career. The recipient’s health has improved, and she returned to the classroom in January.

Reflections on donating

Kirkpatrick says she’s “still terrible” with needles, but her ability to withstand them improved over the course of her experience as a donor. She adds that she could not have done it without the support of family and church members, who added her and the transplant recipient to prayer lists all over Arkansas. The church had a special time of prayer for her the Sunday before she left for Washington D.C.

“I felt like when I was lying in that bed, they were all there with me,” she said. “I could feel their support, and I felt like we were all doing this; it wasn’t just me.”

She finds it amazing to think back to the day she signed up for the registry. The eventual recipient of her stem cells was only a child at the time.

“When my husband pushed me forward to sign up for our friend, we were both hoping to save his life,” she said. “It turned out it wasn’t his life we were saving, it was this little girl’s.”

She credits faith in God and prayerful support as the keys to the relatively easy time she had with her donation. While she used to faint at the sight of needles or blood, that didn’t happen at any point during this process. “I never felt weak, never felt bad, never felt anything but great,” she says. “That’s why I say, ‘It sure wasn’t me doing this!’”

Some people have expressed surprise that she donated for a complete stranger. But Kirkpatrick sees it differently.

“That stranger could’ve been my daughter, it could’ve been my sister, it could’ve been a friend,” she says. “And it is someone’s daughter, and it’s someone’s friend, and it’s someone’s sister… I just felt so honored and blessed to be chosen to do this for her.”

Kirkpatrick now encourages others to sign up for the donor registry at every opportunity. As the process unfolded, she kept her middle-school students in the loop.

“One of them told me, ‘You’re my hero,’” she said. She was quick to remind the students that they can be heroes, too, by joining the registry when they’re old enough. Eligibility begins at age 18; for details, visit www.BeTheMatch.org.

“How can you say no? I mean, they’re asking you to save someone’s life,” she says. “No matter what pain you go through, someone else’s life is at stake.”


 

United Methodist views on organ and tissue donation
Since 1984, the Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church has addressed organ and tissue donation, citing the Great Commandment found in Matthew 22:37-39 as theological support for such acts. It encourages congregations to observe National Donor Sabbath each November.

Church law also supports organ and tissue donation. Paragraph 162W of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church – 2012 states, in part, “We recognize the life-giving benefits of organ and other tissue donation and encourage all people of faith to become organ and tissue donors as a part of their love and ministry to others in need.”

Visit www.umc.org/what-we-believe/organ-and-tissue-donation to learn more.