After mother’s need, son donates stem cells for another woman’s cause

Joann Sullivan hugs her son Bryant Sullivan, 23, at their home on Aug. 14, 2014, in Barrington, Ill. Bryant, who's mother received a life-saving stem cell transplant, will be a stem cell donor for a woman his mother's age. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

(MCT) CHICAGO — When Bryant Sullivan got an email last year letting him know he was a potential stem cell match for a woman in need of a transplant, agreeing to blood tests and potentially more intrusive operations to become a donor was an easy choice, he said.

“It was basically like a no-brainer for me,” said Sullivan, 23, of suburban Barrington. “I was thrilled to be given the chance to help, to give back.”

Sullivan can say that because he knows what it is like to need a stranger to help save a loved one’s life. Less than a year before he was contacted by the National Marrow Donor Program, his mother, Joanne Sullivan, had received lifesaving stem cells from a man in Germany.

Their experiences brought mother and son to Navy Pier recently for a bone marrow registration drive being coordinated by the national donor program and the Mayo Clinic.

The program matches potential donors to recipients not by blood type but by a marker found in most cells called a human leukocyte antigen. The immune system uses the markers to discern which cells belong in your body and which do not, according to the donor program website. Becoming a member of the registry is free for donors 18 to 44, an age range usually requested by doctors, and requires only a cotton swab swipe from the inside of a person’s cheek. Most healthy people in that group can be on the registry, according to the donor program.

Dr. Mrinal Patnaik, who was Joanne Sullivan’s doctor and works in the hematology and bone marrow transplant division of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said he hopes the Sullivans’ story will inspire new potential stem cell donors to sign up.

“I’ve done this for many years, and it’s not common to see this kind of payback, where the mother receives cells and then one of the sons fortuitously is called up to donate,” Patnaik said. “I think it was a beautiful event.”

The National Marrow Donor Program, which aims to connect patients who have leukemias and other bone and blood cancers and disorders with bone marrow and stem cell donors, has more than 20 million people signed up, Patnaik said. While it sounds like a lot, “that’s just a drop in the ocean compared to (the need) out there,” he said.

A full sibling is sometimes the best match for patients, Patnaik said, but some aren’t matches, and some patients don’t have brothers or sisters. About 70 percent of patients who need a transplant won’t have a suitable donor in their family, according to the marrow donor program.

Patnaik said he would especially encourage registration among people who aren’t white. Ninety percent who sign up for the registry are Caucasian, he said, making a genetic match for a nonwhite person “exceedingly difficult.”

“While (we have) positive stories, I can tell you heartbreaking stories where 19-, 20-year-olds have died in the hospital waiting for a match,” Patnaik said. “Nobody should die waiting in the hospital for an unrelated donor source.”

Joanne Sullivan’s three sons were tested and put into the registry in 2011 after her myelofibrosis diagnosis, which came as a shock to the otherwise healthy, active woman, she said.

“It came down like a ton of bricks,” she said of her diagnosis of the illness, which disrupts a body’s normal production of blood cells.

Tired of needing weekly blood transfusions and heeding the suggestions of doctors, Sullivan decided to move forward with a transplant. Stem cells from her German donor were flown to the Mayo Clinic, where she received her treatment in January 2012.

On Nov. 12, when Bryant Sullivan sat in a hospital chair for four hours to have stem cells extracted from his body through an IV for the patient he donated to, it was a remarkable day, in part because it happened to fall on Joanne’s birthday, the family said.

“Sometimes things happen and sometimes you grow from it and sometimes you get a chance to give back,” Joanne Sullivan said, adding, “It was just an exhilarating experience.”

For more information on joining the registry, visit .


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