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Bone marrow transplants: A second chance at life

(From right to left) Staff Sgt. Brenna Reineck-Watson, then Brenna Reineck; Greg Reineck; Dawn Reineck and Hunter Reineck pose for a photo April 3, 2015, in the Froedtert Hospital Bone Marrow Transplant Unit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dawn received a STEM cell transplant from an anonymous donor as treatment for Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. (Courtesy photo)

(From right to left) Staff Sgt. Brenna Reineck-Watson, then Brenna Reineck; Greg Reineck; Dawn Reineck and Hunter Reineck pose for a photo April 3, 2015, in the Froedtert Hospital Bone Marrow Transplant Unit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dawn received a STEM cell transplant from an anonymous donor as treatment for Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. (Courtesy photo)

Airman Basic Brenna Reineck, Basic Military Training graduate, hugs Dawn Reineck, Brenna’s mother, Sept. 4, 2015 on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Dawn received a STEM cell transplant from an anonymous donor as treatment for Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and lived an additional five years after her diagnosis. (Courtesy photo)

Airman Basic Brenna Reineck, Basic Military Training graduate, hugs Dawn Reineck, Brenna’s mother, Sept. 4, 2015 on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Dawn received a STEM cell transplant from an anonymous donor as treatment for Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and lived an additional five years after her diagnosis. (Courtesy photo)

(From right to left) Staff Sgt. Brenna Reineck-Watson, 8th Fighter Squadron squadron aviation resource management noncommissioned officer in charge, poses with her father Greg Reineck in front of a F-16 Viper Nov. 12, 2021 on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Reineck-Watson's mother received a STEM cell transplant in 2015 following a diagnosis of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Reineck-Watson is an active advocate for DoD-affiliated persons to register for the Salute to Life program, and for non-DoD-affiliated persons to register for the Be the Match program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Sparks)

(From right to left) Staff Sgt. Brenna Reineck-Watson, 8th Fighter Squadron squadron aviation resource management noncommissioned officer in charge, poses with her father Greg Reineck in front of a F-16 Viper Nov. 12, 2021 on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Reineck-Watson's mother received a STEM cell transplant in 2015 following a diagnosis of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Reineck-Watson is an active advocate for DoD-affiliated persons to register for the Salute to Life program, and for non-DoD-affiliated persons to register for the Be the Match program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Sparks)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

I had just turned 18, I decided to spend the weekend at my best friend’s house to celebrate. I was a couple months away from graduating high school and then getting on a plane to head off to Air Force Basic Training. I spent most of my childhood dreaming of the Air Force, following in my dad’s footsteps. It was all finally within reach. 

I woke up to a text from my brother telling me that mom was going to the hospital, but that it wasn’t a big deal. I called her as soon as I saw the text. She said some blood work she had done the week prior at the doctors was unusual so they were keeping her overnight to run some more tests. Not a big deal.

I drove to the hospital to see her, even after she tried to convince me it wasn’t necessary.

An hour later when I got there, my dad was waiting for me in the hospital lobby. It was a large open area, filled with lots of sunlight. His eyes were red. I asked him where mom’s room was. It was then that he told me that my mom had cancer. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia to be exact. That she would be starting chemo and radiation today, and would be here for at least three weeks. I couldn’t believe it. He hugged me and we cried together. It didn’t feel real.

We collected ourselves and gathered as much composure as we could. My dad asked that I try not to cry in front of my mom when I get up to her room. To try to keep things happy since she was already dealing with such horrific news. I wiped my eyes and took a deep breath, he was right, she didn’t need to see me so upset. I agreed.

Time to go see my mom. She was on a special floor, reserved for blood cancer patients.

All bets were off when I walked in the room. The sight of her in a hospital bed, hooked up to IV’s, monitors and miscellaneous wires broke me in an instant. I ran to the side of her bed and laid in her arms while we both cried and laughed about how I promised I wouldn’t cry.

The following weeks were a blurred mess of tests, chemo treatments, pills and radiation. Forty-three days of inpatient care, and her lab work was finally at an acceptable level to come home. She was released a week before my senior prom. It seemed like life might go back to normal -- eventually.

Our eyes were on the next goal: get my mom’s cancer into remission so that she could get a bone marrow transplant to eradicate the cancer that was flowing through her bones and blood. The road to a transplant is a long one, filled with many ups and downs, successes and failures. Some people are fortunate enough to have a relative that meets the criteria to donate bone marrow. The best family donors are usually siblings, since donors and recipients are paired using your Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) which is determined by your genetics. My mom had a brother and a sister, both of whom held out hope that they would be good donor candidates for their sister.

Unfortunately, neither of them were matches. Only 30% of patients who need bone marrow transplants have a family member who’s cells are a full match. Meaning, the other 70% of patients hold out hope that somewhere, someone in the Worldwide Bone Marrow registry will match and be willing to donate.

Our family was now hoping that a complete stranger would match my mom’s HLA profile and then be willing to donate. In the early summer of 2014, they found someone. We only knew it was a woman. No other information was given other than she was a 100% perfect match, and willing to be a donor. I was in the depths of Basic Military Training as this was happening. So, I was getting updates in letters and weekly phone calls. The anticipation and anxiety of good news was constantly on the forefront of my mind.

The stars seemed to align perfectly in April of 2015. I was a few days away from graduating tech school when we found out my mom was ready for transplant. Finally. The donor stayed through a year of prepping, that level of commitment from a total stranger amazes me to this day. And I would be able to be there when the transplant happened.

A bone marrow transplant isn’t the kind of transplant you see on TV shows. There’s no operating room, or surgeon asking for a scalpel with suspenseful music in the background. It’s actually a relatively calm, anti-climactic situation. After the collection of STEM cells from the donor, they are hand carried by a specially trained courier directly to the patient. There’s usually less than 24-hours between the donation and the transplant. A specially trained nurse will verify the patient’s data and then hang up a bag with an IV. The bag is bright red, and filled with STEM cells. The cure to my mom’s cancer, in a tiny plastic bag. It only takes a few hours for the red liquid to flow through the IV into the patient.

The following three years resembled normal life again. There were many doctor appointments and short lived hospital stays. Having all of your bone marrow replaced is sort of like a factory reset for your body. She was in her 40’s, getting the same vaccines as new babies completely rebuilding her immune system. Similarly to small children, even a mild fever landed her in the hospital just to ensure nothing was seriously wrong.

About three years after her transplant, my mom began getting sick again. She was losing weight and strength. Her lungs were beginning to fail. What I thought was another battle with cancer ended up being the long term effects of her cancer treatments and transplant. She eventually passed away from those complications in August of 2019, five years post-transplant.

My mom’s bone marrow transplant didn’t save her life, but it extended her life for five years. Five years of birthdays, anniversaries and holidays we got together.  She was able to see both of her children graduate, she saw my little brother become a certified welder, and saw me progress through the ranks in the Air Force. She saw me get married and have her first grandchild. Five years of priceless memories our family was given as a gift by a selfless stranger, who got their cheek swabbed to potentially be a bone marrow donor one day.

We’ve never met her donor, and we likely never will. But, they are someone I am thankful for every single day. Donating bone marrow is a priceless gift you can give to a family that will change their lives.

If you are a non-DoD affiliated civilian interested in registering to be a bone marrow donor, visit www.bethematch.org for more information. If you are an Active Duty, Reserve or Guard service member, member of the Coast Guard, a dependent family member or a DoD civilian between the ages of 18-60, visit www.salutetolife.org for more information.

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