Resting on the flat pillows, staring at the monochromatic walls, Kristin Lamelas couldn’t help but fear that the second chance at life she planned to celebrate with her family was slowly slipping out of her grasp. The worst part; there was nothing she could do about it. She had braved the diagnosis of blood cancer, had rallied to register potential lifesavers for patients who are in a similar position as her, and rejoiced at the news that she had found a matching donor on the international bone marrow donor registry. She had even begun her conditioning chemotherapy treatment, the final step before receiving her transplant, determined to win the fight against blood cancer. Now, just as she could see the finish line, the rapid spread of COVID-19 was putting her only chance at survival in jeopardy.
The world outside of her hospital room was quickly grinding to a halt in the face of this unprecedented global pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 was causing disruptions all over the world, with countries on lockdown and industries across the board ceasing or limiting operations. Schools were suspended and hospitals were drastically reducing or delaying surgeries and operations due to the influx of patients. Daily life as we know it has been put on pause. Unfortunately for Kristin, her desperate need of a stem cell transplant could not be put on hold or delayed anymore.
Kristin remembered the chilly late October day she went to a local drive to donate blood, as she had done routinely since her first donation as a teenager. For some, the thought of donating to a complete stranger might cause hesitation, but to Kristin the lack of direct familiarity helped to underscore the reality that we are all connected. When the nurse drawing her blood came back to tell her that her Hemoglobin levels were low, Kristin’s first concern was whether or not they could accept her blood. Little did she know, her low Hemoglobin levels were merely a red flag for something far more serious. After doing follow up blood tests Kristin received shocking news from her doctors: she had been diagnosed with High Grade Myelodysplastic Syndrome and would need a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor to survive. Kristin’s life now depended on the kindness of a complete stranger.
Kristin and her family immediately began working with DKMS, the world’s largest donor center, to spread awareness for the need of stem cell donors and encourage the public to register as potential lifesavers for patients like her. Within a few weeks it seemed Kristin’s prayers had been answered when her doctor called to tell her they had found her perfect 10/10 match on the global registry. “The donor is a 25 year old female from Germany,” explains Kathy, Kristin’s sister. “We cried and felt so very grateful and touched that a complete stranger would donate her bone marrow.”
That happiness however, didn’t last long. With Kristin’s donor being outside of the US and stringent travel bans in place, it seemed as if the window of opportunity for the donation was quickly closing. Knowing that a transplant was her only option for survival, along with thousands of other patients in the US, Kristin reached out to her local congressman and pleaded with them to not halt the exchange of essential medical products. Though confined within the white walls of her oncology ward, she would not be deterred in her fight against blood cancer.
Fortunately, international organizations like DKMS anticipated issues with the global medical supply chain and had been working behind the scenes since the outset of the pandemic to ensure patients like Kristin would receive the transplants they needed to survive. As cases of the virus began to increase across America, the CDC worked with donor centers to issue a blanket travel ban waiver for the transport of all international stem cell products for transplantation. Due to this work, in mid March as the pandemic began to envelop the US, Kristin was able to successfully receive life-saving stem cells from her anonymous international donor.
Kristin is now in isolation at the hospital as her body accepts the new stem cells and her road to recovery begins, but despite the enforced solitude she is full of hope. She spends her days in the hospital on FaceTime with friends and family, most of whom are in the same state of isolation as her due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They laugh about the shared situation they are in and mourn the impact the virus is having on families across the world, but they also talk about the future now. About being together as a family again and the big plans they have to celebrate when she finally is able to come home. About the newest, albeit unknown, member of their family who made this all possible and their desire to one day meet her. They talk about a future that is only possible because a complete stranger felt much like Kristin; that we should help each other, because ultimately we are all connected. “We have so many more memories to make, memories that are only possible because of this young woman,” says Kathy. “Despite everything going on in the world she still donated and it’s because of that that my sister is still with us. Thank you will never be enough!”