Saturday, October 15, 2011

Faces of Leukemia - one stricken, one savior.

Paul and his donor Alke - two lives intersecting - one second life

I asked Alke if she would donate bone marrow again if she was asked, and she said "of course". Her boyfriend Benjamin told me he has also been tested for compatibility because "one day I may need a donor, everyone should be tested".

You can contact Hema-Quebec, or the Red Cross or blood authority in your country to be tested for compatibility - you may give a second life.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Celebrating Life in Bremen

I arrived yesterday and met Paul at the airport in Berlin, and Paul, his 18 year old son Jean and I drove 400 kms to Bremen (a small City in Northern Germany) to meet his donor, a young German woman by the name of Alke Rademacher.

In 2005, when Alke was in university, the German blood authority (DKMS) came to her campus asking people to be tested for bone marrow compatibility, and she agreed to be tested. One fateful day three years later she received a letter from the DKMS telling her that she might be a match for a bone marrow transplant for a leukemia patient, she wasn’t told who or even where this patient was. She was asked if she would go for further tests to confirm compatibility. After a visit to a doctor for initial tests, and then a visit to a hospital for further tests, she was informed that she was a compatible donor, and she agreed to donate bone marrow. She still wasn’t told who, or even where, the recipient was.

Her bone marrow was harvested in Bremen under general anesthetic – it required the physical aspiration of bone marrow from her hips and lower back, and I understand from her that it wasn’t terribly pleasant. A nurse from HMR in Montreal flew to Germany to pick up the bone marrow. Paul was not told who, or even where the donor was – all he knew was that it could save his life. According to Jewish tradition, there are various hierarchies of charity, the highest charity is when the donor doesn’t know who he or she is giving to, and the recipient is not aware of the identity of the donor. This is the purest form of giving, motivated only by the desire to give and help, without the promise of thanks or recognition.
This is what Alke did and it brought us to Bremen tonight, to celebrate her generosity and the life it has given to Paul. Today is a shining example of all that is good in life.

It was only several months after the transplant that Alke learned that the recipient was a Canadian man who was 49 years old. She didn’t learn Paul’s identity, and he didn't learn hers until two years after the transplant. They started corresponding and decided to meet here in Bremen - Alke arrived at our hotel with her boyfriend Benjamin, and a birthday cake for Jean's 18th birthday. Paul and Alke shook hands and Paul asked if he could hug her. It was a gesture that was natural and appropriate, a sign of the bond between them and no doubt, his gratitude.

Last night we celebrated in the finest restaurant of Bremen, overlooking the Weser River and the city. The menu included a five course pumpkin menu, the likes of which I certainly had never seen and therefore, it was quite natural that I order it. It started with nutmeg pumpkin, goat cheese and prawns,  followed by a pumpkin curry brittle soup, then roasted quail soup with pumpkin ragout and roasted pumpkin bread, followed by a poached trout with pumpkin risotto and leak, and for dessert, I am sure you can guess, pumpkin parfait and maple cream ( no doubt they know we’re Canadians) brulée. All washed down with Becks, the local beer! How could I resist it all? After dinner we strolled through old Bremen (the Schnoor) with ancient alleys and medieval glory.

We celebrated the gift of life, and the young German woman who gave Paul his second life.  

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Gift of Life

I first met Paul Balthazard shortly after he was diagnosed with acute leukemia, about two years after my diagnosis. We spoke during his chemotherapy, shared the relief of his remission and the joyful news that an unrelated, and then anonymous donor in Germany was a match for a life saving stem cell transplant. I watched him prepare for the transplant, then recover and grow stronger. We shared the bond of adversity and survival, and our friendship grew. By May 2010 he was strong enough to join me for part of my cycle across Europe, and we enjoyed the beauty (and wines) of Burgundy and Alsace together. 

Two years after his transplant he was able to learn the identity of his donor - and she (a young woman in Germany) was able to learn whose life she had saved. They share the bond of life.

On Wednesday I leave for Germany, to travel with him to Bremen, so Paul and his life saving donor can meet, and embrace and celebrate life. I am privileged to be able to share such a special journey with a friend, and to photograph them together for Faces of Leukemia.

Follow our journey, and celebrate with us.