It was 2006 and the young man in Wyoming and the young woman in Germany knew nothing of each other. Had they met they would have had little in common, at least on the surface. He had just graduated from high school in a small rural town and hadn’t chosen a career path; she had the idea that she would pursue a career in medicine.
But Henrike Schaeper, then 20, had made a decision that would bring them together for life. She’d put her name on a bone marrow donor registry. The choice ultimately saved the life of Brice McIntosh, 19, who in the summer of ’06 received shattering news. The back pain that had been making his life miserable was the result of a tumor caused by acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL.
Today, McIntosh is cancer-free, says director of UCH’s BMT/ Hematologic Malignancies Program Han Myint, MD, also a CU Cancer Center investigator. For that, McIntosh can thank a transplant that used healthy blood-forming cells donated by Schaeper. A little more than five years after the March 7, 2007 transplant – a date McIntosh calls his “real birthday” – he got a chance to thank Schaeper in person at a pub near the Anschutz Medical Campus.
“It’s a big day,” McIntosh said a few hours before the meeting, attended by his parents and many of the University of Colorado Cancer Center providers who cared for him. “It’s a chance to thank her.” The weekend following the March 29 meeting, Schaeper traveled to McIntosh’s hometown of Wheatland, Wyo., an hour north of Cheyenne, to continue the celebration with his extended family.
A chance for thanks
The two had been corresponding by email for three years. Donors must remain anonymous for two years following a transplant, a protocol Myint says is meant to protect them from feelings of guilt and responsibility if the recipient dies. As soon as he could, McIntosh got Schaeper’s contact information and wrote her.
“I just told her [in the first email] that words can’t thank her enough and what a great thing she did. How do you repay someone for the gift of life?”
The opportunity for the March meeting arose because Schaeper pursued her interest in medicine. After putting her name in the donor registry, she enrolled in a medical school in Bochum, Germany, and recently earned her degree. Still undecided about a specialty – she’s in the first year of her residency – she decided to write Myint to ask if she might shadow him and his team.
Schaeper said she made the request rather hesitantly. “It’s not the sort of thing you do in Germany,” she said. “The [medical system] has lots of hierarchy.” But Myint enthusiastically agreed, and the stage was set for donor and recipient to meet.
Six years ago, the debilitating back pain McIntosh thought might be a slipped disk had triggered a round of visits to back specialists and forced him to quit classes at Casper College. He came home to Wheatland to rest and do some part-time work for a friend, but he found he couldn’t handle the pain his spasming back caused. He lost weight and became easily fatigued.
At first he chided himself “for being a wuss,” but he finally had to admit something wasn’t right. When a back specialist ordered an MRI, McIntosh got the shocking news. A portion of the image of his spinal cord looked hollow. It was the tumor.
The lymphocytes that normally fight infections had gone rogue, growing at abnormal rates and squeezing out normal cells. But as difficult as that news was to absorb, it couldn’t match what he felt when he heard the judgment of a Cheyenne physician.
“He told me I had no outlook,” McIntosh said, “and that I had a month to live.”
But McIntosh got a referral to UCH for a second opinion. That turned out to be Myint’s and the message was very different. “Dr. Myint assured me from day one that in five years, I’d be cured,” McIntosh said.
Myint, who was in the early stages of rebuilding the hospital’s BMT program at that point, recalls those words today.
“I was confident from the moment I saw him because he was a younger patient,” he said. That, he explained, greatly increased the chances that a bone marrow transplant would send McIntosh’s ALL into remission or cure him.
The BMT team began searching for a match. His two brothers were the most likely possibilities, but neither turned out to be the answer. The National Marrow Donor Program registry eventually identified the best candidate as Schaeper, who had donated her marrow at a hospital in Dresden, Germany. From the moment of collection, the team at UCH had 72 hours to transplant the cells in McIntosh.
He doesn’t remember much of the transplant procedure. What stands out in his mind, he said, is the preparation: rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to kill the cancer cells.
“That takes every inch of your life. They’re killing the cancer with a bomb of chemo and radiation,” he said. “It does the trick, but it wiped me out. I was so fatigued I have only faint memories of the transplant.”
Five years after the lifesaving procedure, McIntosh prefers not to dwell on his disease. He’s finishing up student teaching in agricultural education in Casper and getting ready to send out job applications this spring.
“I’m loving it,” he said of teaching, particularly working with students in Future Farmers of America. “I’ve gotten back to everyday life. I don’t want to remember [the ALL]. At least I try not to. I don’t have any pictures. It’s a memory from my past.”
What he won’t forget, he said, is the woman who gave him a chance at life and the medical team that pulled off the feat.
“I’ll remember all the good people that I met here at the hospital,” he said. “I made so many good friends with the staff. Everybody on the team – my transplant coordinator, the physicians, the nurses, the nurse practitioners – had a role.”
For her part, Schaeper makes a modest heroine, saying only she appreciated the opportunity to see McIntosh healthy.
After she’d made the donation, she recalled, she sometimes wondered what had become of it.
“I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened to my bag [of donated marrow],” she said.
To the everlasting gratitude of McIntosh, she got her chance.
This article was first published in the UCH Insider at the University of Colorado Hospital, the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s adult patient care partner. To subscribe to the UCH Insider, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.