Stem cell donors crucial to saving lives

Kate McCullough
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Sean and Bonnie Woodford with their son, Corey Woodford, after Sean’s stem cell transplant Feb. 25, 2010.
— Submitted photo courtesy of Bonnie Woodford

In April of this year, Sean Woodford met the man who donated the stem cells that saved his life.

“It was a very moving experience. There were tears shed,” said Woodford, of Bellevue. “He’s a very fine man, and we both said either we were going to meet in Germany, or he’s going to come here someday.”

Woodford was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, Jan. 14, 2009 — his wife, Bonnie’s, birthday.

“I had 65 per cent cancer cells and the success rate on that was like 15 per cent,” he said.

Sean had chemotherapy for a full week, around the clock. He was in and out of chemotherapy for nearly a year until he finally got the call — Canadian Blood Services’ OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network had found him a perfect match for a stem cell transplant.

“Every day you were asking, ‘Any news yet on the match? Any news yet?’” Bonnie said. “It’s better than winning the lottery.”

In one year, Sean spent nine months in the hospital and made 92 trips from their home in Bellevue to St. John’s for treatment. But the stem cell transplant on Feb. 25, 2010 changed his life.

The Woodfords had to wait almost two years to meet Sean Woodford’s donor, a 27-year-old man from Germany. The month of April was full of emotion for the family. Pictures were exchanged the same day the Woodfords emailed the donor, and a week later Sean and Bonnie finally met his donor over online video chat.

“I’ll always remember, ‘Oh, Sean.’ That’s all he said was, ‘Oh Sean, oh Sean, oh Sean. You look some good. I’m so happy,’” Bonnie said.

She and her husband exchange photos and emails regularly with the donor, and even have plans to visit.

“I’ve done really well. And there’s some people that have done better than me, but there’s a lot of people that aren’t around, too,” Sean said.

Canada is part of an international network, the World Marrow Donors Association, which gives OneMatch access to a larger pool of potential donors.

“They’ll look through that, and they’ll look for the best match and then they’re going to look for a male, and then they’re going to look for a younger donor,” said Jillian Adler, acting manager of donor enrolment for the OneMatch program.

There are currently 926 patients waiting for a stem cell match — a number that is generally on the rise from year to year.

Adler said just 25 per cent of patients can find a match within their families.

“You inherit your DNA markers from your mom and dad, so therefore a sibling represents the best possible chance of finding a match. They rarely test anyone outside of siblings,” she said.

That means 75 per cent of people waiting for stem cells — people such as Sean Woodford — are relying on the OneMatch program to find them a donor.

When someone registers to be a stem cell donor, they fill out a health questionnaire and a tissue sample is taken, which gives OneMatch enough information to add the person to the list.

When a match is found, and the potential donor is notified, more thorough health tests are required to ensure the match is both the best and safest one.

“When that person was 23 they registered, but now they’re getting a call and they’re 27. In that time period a person’s health status can change,” Adler said.

A donor who joins the OneMatch registry in his early 20s might sit on the list until he’s 60 and never be called to donate, but the average wait time to donate is seven years.

Donating stem cells is a relatively simple procedure, but is a bigger commitment than donating blood.

Eighty per cent of the time, donors are giving stem cells from their peripheral blood.

“It’s very much like making a blood donation, it just takes longer,” Adler said.

A stem cell donation takes about seven or eight hours, and depending on the donor’s height and weight, they may be asked to go in for a second day.

The other 20 per cent of donations are taken from the iliac crest, a bone in the pelvis. Though side effects are minimal and do not last long, this procedure involves day surgery and a donor is put under general anesthetic.

“This is why at registration we want to ensure that people understand exactly what it might entail, because we don’t want them to register if they don’t think that they can go through with it,” Adler said.

Not only does OneMatch need committed donors, but there’s a particularly high demand for more non-Caucasian male donors. Currently, there are 334,606 people registered as potential stem cells donors on the OneMatch Network.

“Statistics show that our network is overwhelmingly Caucasian,” she said. “Right now 76 per cent of those 330,000 donors are actually Caucasian, and only 24 per cent are from Canada’s diverse ethnic groups.”

Male donors between the age of 17 and 35 are the most likely group to be chosen to donate, yet they make up just 10 per cent of the network.

OneMatch is working hard to recruit optimal donors. This November marks the third annual “Get Swabbed!” University Challenge.

“Last year, there were 20 university campuses that participated, and they added over 7,500 new optimal donors to the network,” Adler said.

This year, 28 universities are registered, and OneMatch is hoping to surpass last year’s number of donors — especially young, non-Caucasian males.

“We’re not just encouraging more people to get on the registry, but we’re encouraging the right people to get on the registry,” she said.

Memorial University is not registered to participate, but Adler said it isn’t too late to host a “Get Swabbed!” event next month. It’s a big job — the student must find and book a venue, as well as help market the event through social media. Anyone interested is asked to contact Adler by email at

The Telegram is also encouraging people to head down to the Canadian Blood Services clinic at 7 Wicklow St. in St. John’s to donate blood for the annual The Telegram Saves Lives week. The clinic is open Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Organizations: World Marrow Donors Association, OneMatch Network, Canadian Blood Services

Geographic location: Bellevue, Germany, Canada

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Recent comments

  • KENK
    October 17, 2012 - 22:08

    What an amazing story. To the Woodford family I wish all of you the best health and many, many years of happiness together. My Mom has Myeloproliferative Disorder and receives transfusions about every 3 weeks. My son who is 9 years old has SAPHO Syndrome and has had 10 VZIG shots in the past 4 years which is the healthy antibodies from blood donations. I thank God everyday for the people who take the time and so unselfishly give the gift of life. Please tell your stem cell donor that he is a hero in my eyes and he has touched many hearts for his generosity. God Bless you all.