Keila Torres knew during a conference trip to Florida she was going to meet the woman who saved her life. What she didn’t expect was to see someone so familiar.
Torres, 44, of Worcester, Massachusetts, desperately needed a bone marrow transplant in 2016, when she was 39, to beat acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that starts in the bone marrow but often moves into the blood.
A bone marrow transplant is a treatment option for people with blood cancers, such as leukemia, and it replaces unhealthy blood-forming cells with healthy ones from a donor, according to Be The Match, a nonprofit that pairs people with a donor.
She had slightly less than a 50% chance, according to Be The Match. But she beat those odds, thanks to Palm Desert resident Odalis Trinidad.
When the two women met on June 23, Torres had a realization. Her body had been changing since the transplant, and now it started to make sense.
“My blood type changed to Odalis’ blood type. I developed allergies after the transplant, and she has allergies,” Torres said. “Her hair is long, beautiful and really curly, and when my hair started to grow back, it was very curly, very tight curls. When I saw her, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s why my hair is like that.'”
“You basically become your donor. She lives in me,” she added.
Dr. Ayad Hamdan, a bone marrow transplant specialist and board certified hematologist with the Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center, explained that since new stem cells from a donor replace the stem cells in a patient’s bone marrow, which is the “factory of our blood cells,” the patient will have the same blood type as the donor.
He added it is possible for patients to develop allergies, and “most patients who receive chemotherapy or a transplant have the experience that their hair may grow back with a different texture,” but the hair follicles themselves don’t change.
Not only do the two women share hair textures and occasionally stuffy noses, they’re driven by their desire to inspire others to help those in need.
Giving it a shot…or swab
Most 19-year-olds are focused on having good times with their friends, not necessarily providing life-saving donations.
Trinidad said she tried to donate blood as often as she could, even though the process was always a bit uncomfortable — either her arm would stop pumping enough blood, or her arm would be too sensitive. During one of her visits, she noticed a poster for Be The Match and decided to do some more research.
The process to join the donor registry seemed “really easy” for Trinidad, now 24. She received a registration kit to give a swab of cheek cells and sent it back in October 2015. Then came the waiting period.
“If you get called, you get called; if you don’t, well, at least you tried, right?” the Palm Desert resident said.
People between the ages of 18 and 44 can join the Be The Match donor registry. Cells from younger donors have the best chance of successful donations, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Due to a lack of diversity on the donor registry, white patients have a better chance of finding a match on the registry than do people of other races. According to the site, African Americans have a 29% chance, Asians and Pacific Islanders 47%, Latinos 48%, Native Americans 60% and whites 79%.
‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
In July 2015, Torres, 38 at the time, learned she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. With two young sons, ages 15 months and 5 years old at the time, she knew she had to fight to be there for her boys. After chemotherapy, radiation, lymph node removal and a bilateral mastectomy, she was declared cancer-free a year later.
The good news, unfortunately, was spoiled in September 2016.
“I felt like I was fine. I was recovering, I was spending time with my kids, I was going to work, my hair was growing back and I felt great,” Torres said. While undergoing a bone marrow biopsy, she was told “there was something wrong” with routine lab work. She remembered asking her oncologist, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“If we find leukemia,” Torres recalled her oncologist saying. “When I heard leukemia, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not going to be me, it’s probably something else.'”
But the biopsy showed she had acute myeloid leukemia. It is a common type of leukemia in adults, although it accounts for just 1% of all cancers, according to Cancer.org. It is also generally uncommon to find in people younger than 45. Torres was 39.
“I was in shock. I was devastated. I had already gone through so many things,” Torres said, “but in the back of my head I was thinking, ‘I’ve been through breast cancer, I can do this.'”
But the gravity of the situation didn’t hit her until she met the leukemia team at Massachusetts General Hospital. Walking into one of the clinic rooms, she remembers feeling “very claustrophobic,” like she was “running out of breath.”
Torres began chemotherapy at Massachusetts General, but to have a better chance at beating leukemia, she would need a bone marrow transplant.
Finding the right match
The two womenhad plenty in common even before the transplant, Torres said, almost as if Trinidad was always her “missing puzzle piece.” They both have birthdays in October, mothers from Guatemala (Torres grew up there as well) and they’re both mothers.
The best match for a bone marrow transplant is when a patient and donor’s human leukocyte antigen closely match. HLA “is a marker on our stem cells that determines how our immune system responds,” explained Hamdan. Those markers are used by an individual’s immune system to know which cells belong in the body and which ones don’t, according to Be The Match.
Doctors first looked to Torres’ brother to see if he was a match. Siblings have a one in four chance of being a match since half of an individual’s HLA markers are inherited from their mother and the other half from their father, according to Be The Match. About seven out of 10 people won’t have a close match with a family member, as was the case with Torres. That’s when people look to the donor registry.
After Trinidad completed her cheek swab in October 2015, she essentially forgot about it since she didn’t hear back from the registry. She received a phone call a year later.
“‘Hey, I don’t know if you remember you signed up for this, but this is what we do and we’re calling to let you know that you have a possibility of saving someone’s life,'” Trinidad recalled hearing. The only information she was given was the person needing the donation was a female, 40 years old (Torres turned 40 in October 2016) and the type of leukemia. Nothing more, not even a name.
So, yes or no? It was time to decide.
“I called them (the next day to learn) what did I need to do, what did they need from me to make sure it could be successful,” she said.
From donation to transplant
Trinidad had blood work and other tests done prior to donation day. Her family was very supportive of her decision to help save a life, she said, while it was a bit “hard for my friends to be on board.”
“We were all 19, so they were like, ‘You’re crazy, you don’t even know them and you’re going to have this whole surgery for them?’ I was like, “Well, yeah, I can save someone’s life,'” Trinidad recalled. “You would want someone to do it for you, so how could you not do it?”
On donation day, donors are put under general anesthesia and marrow cells are taken from the back of the pelvic bone.
“The donor lies face down, and a large needle is put through the skin and into the back of the hip bone. It’s pushed through the bone to the center and the thick, liquid marrow is pulled out through the needle,” according to Cancer.org. Around 10%, or 2 pints, of marrow are collected, and the procedure takes up to two hours. The donor’s body replaces those cells within four to six weeks.
Trinidad described the day in December 2016 as “nerve-racking,” but not because of the giant needle.
“I know everything that they’re doing to me, but I can’t, I literally cannot, know her perspective, what she is going through, how it is going to get to her,” she said. “During this whole procedure, I’m nervous, I’m thinking, ‘I hope it works, I hope it works.’ I’m a match, but her body might not (accept the cells) well. I want to be sure that I’m doing the best I can so that it’s the best for her.”
To begin the transplant process, a receiving patient must undergo a conditioning regimen, which includes chemotherapy and sometimes radiation, to “wipe out” their immune system and leukemia cells, according to Hamdan. On transplant day, also called “Day Zero,” patients receive the donated cells through a blood transfusion. From Day Zero onward, the donated cells grow and make new blood cells, which is called engraftment, according to Be The Match.
Torres, admitted to the hospital on Thanksgiving, had a week straight of chemotherapy. Day Zero, which she considers one of her birthdays and her “rebirth,” was Dec. 2, 2016.
It’s normal for patients to feel weak, and Torres remembers being “sick to my stomach” the first few days after the transfusion. But her red and white blood counts started growing, she said, and slowly started feeling better. She was released from the hospital on Dec. 23, just in time for the holidays.
‘It was meant to be’
Both women had played a big part in each other’s lives, and yet they still didn’t know anything about one another.
Transplant recipients and donors have to wait one year before they can have direct contact with each other in the United States, according to Be The Match.
“This could only work if both of us want to know,” Trinidad said. “It was hard because I wanted to know her recovery, I wanted to know if it worked. What if it didn’t work and they just didn’t tell me anything at all?”
By the time the one-year mark came, the two women were ready to know something, anything, about each other.
It was an instant connection, almost as if they had known each other their entire lives, they both said. Finally connected on Facebook, they could get a glimpse of the other’s family and see what they were up to. They talked and texted whenever they could.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after their initial contact that Torres revealed to Trinidad that doctors found leukemia once again in January 2018. Torres would have to go through the transplant process all over again, but this time with a different donor.
Hamdan explained: “Transplants are most of the time the only chance for patients to be ‘cured,’ and although there is a good chance of success, the cancer can come back. (It) depends on the disease, the age of the patient, the type of transplant.”
Torres still wouldn’t change a thing.
“She gave me life the first time around. I was able to come home and be with my kids for a year,” Torres said. “Even if I had relapsed or not, I’m so grateful for her for doing an act of kindness. At 20, I wasn’t thinking about stuff like that.”
Trinidad, now a mother herself to 3-month-old son Jimmy, said having her own child put the donation into a whole new perspective.
“I really just am happy to give her that time with her kids. I now know how important and valued that time is,” she said.
But that wasn’t the end of the journey.
They both had meeting each other in-person on their bucket lists, and when an opportunity came at a HOSA – Future Health Professionals convention last month in Orlando, Florida — both said “it was meant to be.”
Representatives from Be The Match reached out to the two women and asked if they’d want to share their story to the students attending the conference. Trinidad was also a member of HOSA when she attended Palm Springs High School.
After years of texting, calling and social media lurking, they hugged on stage at the conference — for quite a long time, admitted Trinidad, and “neither of us wanted to let go.” She described the moment as “surreal,” finally seeing “the life that I gave her.”
And for Torres, to see the woman who went from an anonymous lifesaver to a dear friend and a bit of a look-alike, saying thank you in-person is a moment she’ll never forget.
“There’s no way that I will ever be able to repay her because there’s no price with what she did,” Torres said. “I’m think I’m still kind of digesting all the emotions that came with it, but the one thing I know is I’m full of gratitude for what she did for me.
Trinidad hopes more people will join the donor registry — “it’s so easy,” she reiterated — and be there to answer the call if they end up being someone’s best match.
“I’m a donor because I wanted to be one,” Trinidad said. “I know it required me physically giving up some bone marrow, but it saved someone’s life, and I would do it again.”
Torres, too, can attest to that: “If it hadn’t been for her the first time around, honestly I don’t think I would be here.”
HOW TO JOIN THE BE THE MATCH REGISTRY
Visit https://bethematch.org/ to learn how to join the registry, request a cheek swab and what the next steps are if you’re a match.
Ema Sasic covers health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @ema_sasic.
Transplant News Sharing // “Bone Marrow Transplant News from Guatemala” – Google News from Source www.desertsun.com