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Airman's donation saves sister's life

  • Published
  • By Capt. Alicia Cramer
  • 380th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron
I've always known my sister Cassie and I were alike. We looked like twins growing up even though we were four years apart. But, I didn't realize how alike we were until the day I found out I could save her life.

I was finishing my junior year in college the first time I heard the "C" word...Cancer. Cassie was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma through a nodule found in her neck, which over the next seven years spread throughout her lymphatic system.

By the time Cassie was able to graduate high school, she had already been through rounds of chemo therapy and radiation and deemed "in remission," until it came back her freshman year of college. She succumbed to multiple treatments of chemo, radiation, autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant, and experimental trials. Several times declared "in remission," but the cancer kept coming back worse than before.

It was during Phase II of Undergraduate Pilot Training in 2006, that my human leukocyte antigen typing was tested. As a biological sister, I only had a 25 percent chance to be a donor match for Cassie, but we beat the odds and were blessed that I was a 10 of 10 marker match for HLA.

In 2008, I had just qualified in the C-17 and was excited to go on my first deployment. My sister was responding well to her experimental treatments at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, and we had begun to believe she may not need a stem cell transplant.

I had one of those moments in your life where you think, "what if." "What if something happens to me on my deployment, what if I was supposed to donate, what if I could have saved her life. I took emergency leave and went home to Colorado for the Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation.

I went through a process called apheresis, where I was given a medication for several days that increased the number of stem cells released into the bloodstream.

All of the big bones in my body were achy, like I had the flu, because they were producing the most stem cells. Next, a central catheter tube was inserted above my collar bone to sit just above my heart and collect blood. The apheresis itself was similar to a plasma donation; it takes blood provided through the catheter, filters out the stem cells and returns the filtered blood back to the body.

I went through apheresis about five hours a day for two days, then the stem cells were frozen and stored. My experience donating was easier and less painful than I thought; I even flew back to Charleston, S.C. the second day of apheresis and deployed only five days later.

During the last month of my deployment Cassie's cancer had come back more aggressive than ever and she was headed home to Colorado to get the allogeneic stem cell transplant with my cells.

She underwent her last round of chemo, and had the transplant on December 24, 2008.

Cassie hit the 5-year remission milestone and celebrated her 5th Life Anniversary on December 24, 2013.

I saved a life with my donation, and I would do it again in a heartbeat, which is why I am also now registered with the Department of Defense Bone Marrow Donor Program.

My sister and I were lucky to be a match, but 70 percent of patients rely on registered donors over siblings to find their match. Get registered on the National Marrow Donor a life!