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Debra Downey photo

Debra Downey photo

Britta Lauenroth and Kelly Barber relax in the Barber family’s Greensville home. The families became fast friends after Britta’s stem-cell transplant saved Kelly’s life.

Meeting his match

Stem cell transplant from donor in Germany saves Kelly’s life

By Debra Downey, Senior Editor

Kelly Barber waited a full day before finally tapping the send button that would connect him with the woman in Germany who saved his life.

Kelly was worried about what he should say,  how he should say it and the reaction he’d get from a female 20 years his junior thousands of miles and an ocean away. But Kelly knew he had to reach out. He couldn’t just simply let the woman’s amazing gift go unrecognized.

“She saved my life. There’s no question about it. I can never thank her enough, but I wanted to meet the person who saved my life,” said Kelly.

A father, husband and soon-to-be first-time grandpa, Kelly remembers well the day he was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was Dec. 31, 2007. Stomach cramps that developed shortly after his Boxing Day meal continued to get worse. Kelly could stand the pain no longer and went to emergency.

“I knew what (lymphoma) was. I had a cousin pass away at the age of 38, and a good friend and co-worker,” said Barber. “But I was in a certain amount of shock because we didn’t know the severity.”

Kelly underwent two series of chemotherapy treatments, but his condition grew more grave as the cancer became more aggressive. In the ensuing two years, Kelly spent 165 days in the hospital. His wife, Erika, his children and family members thought more than once he would lose his battle.

Kelly’s only option for survival was a stem cell transplant. Four siblings were tested, 50 or 60 cousins. No match.

As time ticked down on Kelly’s life, the search grew nationally and then globally, to countries who share data with OneMatch, Canadian Blood Services’ stem cell and bone marrow collection network.

• • •

Britta Lauenroth is a 31-year-old oncology nurse in Hamburg, Germany, and registered as a stem cell donor in the summer of 2005. Four years later, in 2009, she was asked to provide five or six vials of her blood.

It took six hours one day and two hours the next. There was no pain involved.

Britta had no idea the impact her donation would have on another person’s life — until April 19, 2013, when she noticed the message in her email inbox. She clicked on it, a close friend by her side for moral support.

• • •

“It took about a day to write the email,” donor recipient Kelly recalled. “I wanted to introduce myself and thank her. I had even more difficulty when she responded back. We had met, albeit through email, but we had communicated.”

Since their initial contact in the spring of 2013, the Barber family, Britta, and her boyfriend Sascha Knese, have developed an immediate rapport. They’ve exchanged countless emails and shared photos through Facebook. About six months ago, everyone started discussing the possibility of getting together in Canada.

Britta and Sascha’s visit was arranged to coincide with the  Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre Bone Marrow Transplant Picnic at the Dundas Driving Park earlier this month. The German visitors were warmly welcomed at Pearson International Airport by their new-found Canadian friends.

“It was every emotion, really,” said Kelly of his thoughts as he waited for Britta’s plane to arrive, a bouquet of blue roses clutched in his hands. “You’re scared to death, thrilled, anxious. There are so many emotions coming through.”

Britta simply couldn’t hold back the tears.

“I was crying. I always cry,” she said. “I gave him a big hug, and I just can’t explain  the feeling.”

Along with attending the bone marrow transplant picnic, the two couples have viewed the magnificent Niagara Falls, took in the Friday the 13th biker day in Port Dover, went sightseeing in Toronto and visited Ottawa and Parry Sound.

“In many ways, they’re like my own two children,” said Kelly.  “It’s like we are members of the same family.”

The Barbers are planning a return trip to Germany, likely in 2016. Next year they’ll be too busy welcoming a new bundle of joy to the family. The baby is due to arrive on Jan. 5. It‘s a day Kelly sometimes wondered if he would ever see.

Thanks to Britta Lauenroth, he will.

What is OneMatch all about?

OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network is responsible for finding and matching volunteer donors to patients who require stem cell transplants.

Fewer than 30 per cent of patients who need stem cell transplants find a compatible donor within their own family. The rest rely on those who have volunteered to donate stem cells to anyone in need.

Because Canadian Blood Services’ OneMatch is a member of an international network of registries, they can also search more than 11 million donors on over 50 registries in other countries.

By agreeing to make their donor data available worldwide, international registries have significantly increased the odds of being able to find a matching donor for any patient, anywhere in the world.

To register, simply go to www.onematch.ca.

 

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