Her gift of marrow reaffirms faith of stranger across miles

College student meets woman her transplant saved

July 12, 2006|By KRISTI FUNDERBURK | KRISTI FUNDERBURK,SUN REPORTER

Nineteen months after donating bone marrow to an Alabama woman she had never met, West Friendship native Diane Shaulis wanted to meet the stranger she had helped.

Shaulis, 21, who will be a senior at Towson University this year, traveled to Birmingham to spend a week with Renee Ellis, who had been diagnosed with Aplastic anemia.

"You think you're going to meet a complete stranger, and I was walking into a room of complete strangers," said Shaulis, who had been talking for months on the phone with Ellis and who made the trip in June to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. "It was overwhelming, but I was so excited."

Ellis, 41, of Montgomery, said she couldn't believe a college student was responsible for the bone marrow donation that saved her life.

"She is absolutely the most incredible person I've ever met," Ellis said of Shaulis. "This experience has just restored that faith that there are a lot of good people out there."

It was an emotional experience for both women, who took part in a reception at the Alabama hospital that included Ellis' nurses, doctors, friends and family.

Bone marrow donors are required to wait a year after the transplant before they are allowed to meet, according to a privacy rule created by the National Marrow Donor Program. After a year, if both patients agree, contact information is released. Before then, all the patients know about each other are sex and age.

In Ellis' case, the donation was made necessary by a condition in which bone marrow produces too few of all types of blood cells, which can be life threatening.

Ellis' only other prospect for a transplant was a 50-year-old man from Germany, but he was rejected because of a virus. Still, the nurses urged Ellis to remain positive. They had heard that a 19-year-old could possibly be a donor.

Shaulis' decision to go through with the bone marrow donation was due in large part to a friend's death from cancer in September 2004. Months after her friend's death, Shaulis heard that another friend's sister, who had a rare blood disease, was holding a bone marrow drive in hopes of finding a potential donor. Shaulis wanted to support both of her friends.

"I went to the drive because I could've been a match for her," she said. "Over 300 people went to the bone marrow drive for my friend and I was the only one who matched anybody in the system at all."

Shaulis filled out a form agreeing that if she turned out to be a match for anybody, she would be notified and offered the opportunity to donate.

When someone signs up to be a bone marrow donor, he or she can back out at anytime, Shaulis said. But when she was notified that she was a match, she decided to go through with it.

Shaulis went to a hospital in Fairfax, Va., in January 2005. She said she wondered about the person who would be receiving the donation, how that woman was close in age to her mother; how Shaulis had lost her friend the year before and how someone else could die without the transplant.

Shaulis said those thoughts helped her to get through the painful, seven-hour process.

"It was starting to get a little uncomfortable, but you keep telling yourself, `I'm helping somebody. There's somebody out there who's going to die if they don't get this,'" Shaulis said.

There are two ways to donate bone marrow, Shaulis explained, but because one process meant a long recovery, she chose a method called apheresis, which takes whole blood from one arm with a large needle that serves as a vacuum.

"I hate needles. I hate them terribly. So I was really scared," she said.

After the blood was taken from her arm, it was separated into three tubes, one for plasma, one for white blood cells and one for marrow cells. The tubes forced the blood through a machine that put her marrow into blood bags. The remaining blood was then pumped through a return tube that was hooked into Shaulis' other arm.

After the process was complete, Shaulis returned home to West Friendship, where she has lived since she was 6 months old, to relax for the remainder of her winter break from college.

Now, the Glenelg High School graduate lives in a Towson apartment to be close to school. When she is not waiting tables during the summer at MaGerks Pub in Bel Air, Shaulis likes to shop and sometimes goes horseback riding with her boyfriend.

In August, Shaulis will return to Towson as a senior where she is studying early childhood education.

Shaulis, who returned from Alabama in late June, was deeply affected by the meeting with Ellis. The two visited for a week, getting to know each other, spending time at the pool and discovering they were both "beach bums," Shaulis said.

"Meeting Renee made this experience real for me," she said. "After seeing her, it's hard to believe she was ever sick. She is an amazing person, and it was a blessing to be able to help her. I would do it again in a heartbeat."

kristi.funderburk@baltsun.com

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