Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

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Everyday Ethical Issues for Older Adults (Ethics Noon Conference)
Dec. 20

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Strangers Become Blood Relatives After Transplant

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Grace Brown helped save cancer patient Darin Eisenhut's life by donating bone marrow. The two met face-to-face for the first time at the Celebration of Life luncheon earlier this year.

She named him after a character on one of her favorite TV shows. He ended up calling her "Amazing Grace" for saving his life.

She is Grace Brown, a 35-year-old CT technologist from Sanford, Florida, and he is Darin Eisenhut, a 52-year-old photographer and graphic designer from La Habra, California.

They were complete strangers on different coasts who were brought together by two things — blood cancer and Be The Match®, part of the National Donor Program, a nonprofit organization that connects patients with donors, educates healthcare professionals and conducts research.

Last month, Cedars-Sinai helped sponsor a Be The Match® Walk+Run event in Long Beach to increase awareness about the ongoing need to register new donors, particularly those in younger, diverse populations. Cedars-Sinai raised more than $1,400, which supports stem cell or bone marrow transplant patients.

In October, Grace and Darin met face-to-face for the first time at the 18th Celebration of Life luncheon, hosted by the Cedars-Sinai Blood and Marrow Transplant Program and the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house when Darin and Grace hugged," said Patricia Van Strien, MSN, RN, clinical program coordinator of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program. "We don't always get to see things come full circle. It's such a reward to see patients with their friends, family, children and grandchildren."

More than 170,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed this year with a potentially fatal blood cancer that requires a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. While about a third of patients find a donor within their families, the majority receive transplants from altruistic strangers who donate stem cells or bone marrow.

Darin's long journey to the luncheon began in late 2015. He'd been feeling extremely run down for several weeks and thought he had the flu. Instead, weeks later, he would be diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

"To get up and walk 50 feet to the bathroom would wear me out," said Darin, who has two sons and two grandsons. "It was terrible."

After undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy, Darin's best chance for long-term survival was to receive a bone marrow transplant. His younger sister was a good match, but Grace turned out to be better — a nearly perfect match.

Grace had registered in 2009 to become a donor. At the time, she gave a swab sample from her cheek and didn't hear a thing for eight years.

"My dad is a firefighter. I'm in the medical field," said Grace, who has rarely missed a chance to donate blood every 56 days since she was 17. "It's just what I was raised to do. If you can help people, you help people."

Then, she got a call saying she might be a match and was asked if she could donate blood for further tests. The results confirmed her suitability to be a bone marrow donor for Darin.

In early May 2016, Grace underwent a 90-minute procedure in a Tampa hospital to donate bone marrow. Shortly after the collection, the bone marrow cells were quickly picked up by courier and flown to Cedars-Sinai where Darin waited. Darin had undergone high doses of chemotherapy to remove the malignant marrow cells which helped to prepare him to receive Grace's new healthy bone marrow cells. The goal was to restore the healthy function of Darin's bone marrow and cure him of leukemia. The bone marrow cells were quickly administered through a catheter line placed in Darin's vein. It took five weeks for Darin to recover and restore bone marrow function of the newly engrafted donor cells. Darin was grateful for his care at Cedars-Sinai and, in particular, wanted to thank these members of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program: Michael Lill, MD, director; Yuliya Linhares, MD, attending physician; and, Sarah Cooper, RN, nurse practitioner.

"The transplant basically re-booted my system," said Darin.

After a transplant, donors and recipients remain anonymous and must wait a year before learning about each other. The wait was difficult for both Darin and Grace, who were very eager to contact the other. Grace was so excited to put a face on her unknown recipient that she gave him a name, Frank — after a character on one of her favorite shows, How to Get Away with Murder.

After a year, they first introduced themselves to each other on Facebook. Then, in October, Darin got to meet his "Amazing Grace," as he had begun calling her, in person at the Celebration of Life luncheon.

"It was worth getting cancer to get that hug," said Darin. "It's like I came out way ahead in that deal. She cried and I cried a little bit. I tried not to cry as much as she did because I'm the man, but that didn't work out so well."

Added Grace: "The entire experience for me was the best-case scenario. He's super cool and has a wonderful family. I feel like I have a new family member. And technically, he is a blood relative now."