He’s My Brother and I Love Him

Article by Make The Days Count Contributor Tamara Belinc 

Donna Hill and her brother, Randy Jenkins, have always shared a special bond, but now they share even more than that — stem cells.


Donna volunteered to be a stem cell donor after Randy was diagnosed with a type of cancer called multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma, a progressive disease of the blood, is a cancer of the plasma cells, an important part of the immune system that produces antibodies to help fight infection and disease. Cells destined to become immune cells, like all blood cells, arise in the marrow from stem cells.


Randy was diagnosed after complaining of pain in his shoulder. His only other symptom was a nosebleed, but Donna said he didn’t think much about it. “He was going in to have surgery for a torn rotator cuff,” Donna said, “but blood tests showed he had cancer. They told him there was no cure, and he had only three days to live. We were devastated.”


Randy was given Thalidomide, which was given to women to relieve morning sickness in the 1950s and 1960s, until it was found to cause extensive birth defects. “No woman who was fertile could even be around the medication,” Donna said.


Randy survived far beyond the three days and in February underwent an autologous stem cell transplant, which involves treating the patient with his own stem cells. Randy’s stem cells were taken from him prior to his receiving a high dose of chemotherapy. Donna said the first transplant had a positive response; the cancer was gone in the bone marrow and reduced in the blood cells.


Researchers from Germany recently conducted a clinical trial to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of autologous stem cell transplants followed by an allogeneic stem cell transplant. In the allogeneic stem cell transplant, cancer patients are given stem cells from a donor, usually a sibling. The researchers used 17 patients with stages II or III of multiple myeloma. Following an autologous transplant, 18 percent of patients achieved a complete disappearance of cancer, which was increased to 73 percent following the allogeneic transplant.


Approximately 17 months following therapy, 13 patients were alive and 12 were cancer free. Two patients died following the transplant. Donna says her family has always been close. “It’s only he and I now,” she said. “Our parents are gone.” Because of this, she knew she had to donate her cells to him. “He’s my brother,” she said. “It has to be a sibling and we matched on all of the things we were supposed to.”


A hospital in Atlanta sent her a kit which involved having her blood tested. “I took the kit to Dr. (Donald) Tucker’s office here in Tullahoma,” she said, “and they drew my blood and sent it to Atlanta.” Randy and his wife, Carolyn, live in Georgia, where he is a retired high school football coach. Donna had to travel to Atlanta three weeks before the procedure to have lab work and a physical.


Four days before the actual transplant she started a drug called Nupragen, which made her bone marrow produce more stem cells. “They had to collect over 10,000 stem cells from me,” she said. “It caused my bones to hurt, but nothing could be negative about this. I was glad to do it. They taught me to give myself the shots so I could come home, but I decided to stay there. A case of the medicine cost $10,000, and I was worried about something happening to it.”


A few days before the transplant an IV port was surgically implanted in Donna’s neck and then hooked to a machine to remove her blood to harvest the stem cells.  “It looked like a dialysis machine,” she said. The procedure involves separating the blood into different components, including the stem cells. “I underwent a harvest for five hours on two different days,” Donna said, “but it was nothing compared to what he has been through.”


Randy’s recovery is slightly ahead of schedule, she said, although he has developed a blood clot in his leg and his wife has to give him shots for that. “He’s been real sleepy lately, but the doctors say he is ahead of schedule,” she said. Doctors told the family it would take 100 days for recovery from the transplant. “In two years, my blood will have completely taken over for his,” she said.


The cancer has taken its toll on Randy’s body, though. He has four broken vertebrae in his back. “He was 6-4,” Donna said, “but the cancer has made him shrink down until he is 5-9. It made him so mad.” Donna works for the Tullahoma city school system. She and her husband, James, have two children, Travis and Allison.


“People have told me that I was so nice to do this for him,” she said. “I don’t see it that way. He is my brother, and I love him.”


“To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.” – Clara Ortega


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Posted on 14 November, 2008 in Finance & Family, Gratitude, Helping Others, Inspirational Stories
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