Bethany Stennett descended the escalator at Sacramento International Airport on Tuesday afternoon and fell into Constance Cole’s warm embrace. Incredibly, the woman in front of her was alive because Stennett’s blood was pulsing through her veins.
Five years ago, Stennett donated a swab of DNA from inside her cheek to a bone marrow registry, as part of a student project at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. That act led to a lifesaving stem cell transplant in 2014 for Cole, a retired aerospace worker from Roseville who was losing a battle with leukemia.
An imperfect genetic match in such transplants can be disastrous, hastening the patient’s death. The odds of Cole’s and Stennett’s genetic material matching up as well as it did were infinitesimal, “probably 1 in 100,000,” said Cole’s doctor, Sutter Health transplant specialist Michael Carroll. “It was remarkable,” he said. “About as good as it gets.”
Now Stennett, 27, and Cole, 73, share more than just blood. They are sharing each other’s lives.
“We feel that she is as close as a daughter can be,” said Cole’s husband, Cliff, moments before Stennett’s plane touched down. “She’s a blood relative!”
“Yes,” Constance echoed in a near whisper.
A long and complex journey brought the two women together in Sacramento this week for their first meeting after months of email exchanges and telephone calls.
Their story is a triumph of the system set up by the nonprofit National Marrow Donor Program, the largest registry of its kind in the world. The program matches patients diagnosed with potentially fatal blood cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma, with people who donate healthy blood stem cells or bone marrow.
The journey began on an autumn day in 2011, when Stennett helped organize a bone marrow registry drive at her Jacksonville campus, where she was studying for a master’s degree in psychology. After surrendering a swab of DNA, she put the experience behind her. She recalls being told that the chances that her genetic material would provide a lifesaving match were “basically zero.”
While Stennett was taking part in the registry drive, Cole was 68 and recently diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a blood abnormality that can be a precursor to cancer. Two years later, she grew alarmingly weak, and following a biopsy, learned she had acute myeloid leukemia. The only effective treatment, doctors said, was a stem cell transplant, and the procedure would be successful only if a donor could be found whose tissue type closely matched her own.
The best donors, by far, are close relatives such as brothers or sisters. But none of Cole’s family members were suitable candidates. Cole, by virtue of her age, was not automatically approved for the procedure, which involves killing off the patient’s faulty blood system with powerful chemotherapy and then injecting the donor’s healthy stem cells to essentially grow a new system. As many as 30 percent of patients die of complications from the transplant, said Carroll.
But Cole was game to try, and deemed healthy enough to go forward. When she learned that a young woman was not only a perfect match in tissue typing but also had her AB positive blood type, “I was so relieved,” she recalled. She badly wanted to survive for her husband and her grandson, Jacob Perry. Perry’s mother – Cole’s daughter, Diane – had died of brain cancer at age 45.
“I knew I had to get ready,” she said.
She entered Sutter’s blood and bone marrow treatment unit and received medicines to suppress her immune system. The drugs left her dangerously susceptible to infection. They ravaged not only her defective cells but her healthy ones, too. She lost her hair, her fingernails splintered, and red spots developed on her skin. Cole rarely complained, said Carroll. He recognized her as a stoic woman of faith. Her husband was an ordained minister, and very supportive.
“If a person is determined to get through something like this and has a positive attitude, they do way better,” Carroll said. “Some people view the treatment as a punishment. They sulk and suffer and complain. That wasn’t Constance. She basically sailed through it.”
Back in Florida, Stennett underwent health screenings and rigorous testing of her blood. The tests confirmed she was an excellent match for Cole. She began taking injections of a drug called filgrastim, which promotes the growth of bone-forming stem cells.
The transplant registry flew her to a hospital in Washington, D.C., for more tests. By then Stennett was feeling the side effects of the filgrastim, which caused her bones to ache, drained her energy and made her dizzy. But, like Cole, she was unfazed.
Now a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Florida, Stennett said she was fascinated by the procedure and its potential to save another person. “It is taxing,” she said, “but I was very excited about the whole thing, the idea that the blood she would be producing would be mine.”
During a second trip to D.C., specialists took blood from Stennett’s arm and ran it through a machine that extracted stem cells. The blood was returned to her through a vein in the other arm. The process took six hours and left Stennett exhausted.
Within a day of her donation, her cells were refrigerated and shipped by courier to Carroll at Sutter. Cliff Cole remembers seeing the box that held the key to his wife’s survival arriving in her room. It seemed miraculous.
The transplant itself simply involved infusing Cole’s bloodstream with Stennett’s stem cells. It happened on Aug. 8, 2014, and took less than half an hour. The hope was that Stennett’s stem cells would circulate in Cole’s body, bind to other cells and create a strong new immune system.
Cole suffered one major complication, graft vs. host disease, in which the new immune system began to attack her organs. But she survived and has been healthy for more than a year. “I am leukemia-free, in remission,” she said. “And I have my donor’s bone marrow, 100 percent.”
The process, grueling on both sides, is anonymous by design. Initially, Cole and Stennett knew nothing more than each other’s ages and gender.
But as the months went by and Cole’s health improved, she and her husband grew curious about the young woman who had given such a precious gift. And Stennett wondered whether the person who received her stem cells had survived.
On Tuesday, months after the marrow registry helped put them in touch, the two women finally shared their first hug.
“Bethany! Welcome, welcome, welcome!” the Coles chirped as Stennett stepped off the escalator. Cliff carried a sign that read ‘BETHANY STENNETT.’ Constance presented her with a bouquet.
“I’m so excited to be here,” said Stennett, smiling. “So wonderful to actually meet you.”
The Coles paid for Stennett’s flight to Sacramento and are hosting her in their Roseville home. So far this week, they have toured area wineries and shown her the rowing facility at Lake Natoma; Stennett’s a competitive rower. On Friday morning, they will spend time with Carroll and his transplant team.
Carroll has performed thousands of transplants in his career, but has witnessed only one other instance in which patient and donor came together.
“I’m thrilled for them, and for the fact that they can demonstrate the wonders of this gift to our team,” he said. “The staff works in the trenches every day, but rarely get to see the fruits of their labor in this way.”