Families’ lifelong bond started with a bone marrow transplant

May 2, 2014 | by

Some bone marrow transplant recipients rely on the generosity of unrelated donors to provide the lifesaving donations necessary to cure their cancer. In every case, patients are grateful. For some, the donation bonds families who were once strangers.

Darren and Lisa Bassler toast to life with Laura and Craig Sowers. The couples became friends after Darren donated bone marrow to Lisa a decade ago.

Darren and Lisa Bassler toast to life with Laura and Craig Sowers. The couples became friends after Darren donated bone marrow to Lisa a decade ago.

That’s the case for Craig and Laura Sowers and for Darren Bassler, who saved Laura's life with a bone marrow donation. The Sowers live in New Mexico, and Darren is a New York resident. They met years ago and have remained friends. They will attend City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion this year to celebrate an important anniversary: 10 years since Laura’s transplant.

Craig Sowers tells the story in his own words:

The phone rang just after dinnertime. The caller ID said New York. I handed the phone to Laura. I heard her say, “Darren? THE Darren?”

Our year of censored communication had expired just a few hours earlier. We had received a call from the matched unrelated donor (MUD) program director of City of Hope.  So had Darren.

It had started for Laura and me two years and five months earlier with Laura’s diagnosis of leukemia. For Darren, it had been five years since he had lost his wife, Lori. She had died after a year and half battle with cancer. The loss was devastating and left him with their three daughters: One was 7 at the time and their twins were 3 years old.

Somehow, life went on and Darren continued work at the plant in upstate New York where he had been employed for 17 years. The plant owner had extended every benefit possible to Darren and his family during his ordeal. At some point during the next year, his workplace hosted a drive to register potential bone marrow donors. Darren gave a blood sample, then he forgot about it.

When Laura was diagnosed in early 2003, we hoped we could beat AML (acute myeloid leukemia) with chemotherapy. She had always been healthy, and as bad as the diagnosis was, it seemed like the treatments worked. Life resumed. Then, one year (to the date) we were told the leukemia had come back. Now, the doctor told us that the only way to a cure was with a bone marrow transplant. We weren’t even sure what that meant.

Once again, Laura was back in treatment. The battle was even tougher. Many times we just wanted to make it through the day. I was determined not to lose her, but I was powerless. We needed to find a donor. Her brother was tested, but he was not a match and the clock was ticking. Our doctor went on the assumption that a donor would be found, and he put us in touch with the appropriately named City of Hope. Through their generous grant program, preparations were in motion for Laura to receive her transplant. And at just the right moment, a perfect DNA match was found.

We left Albuquerque for California with plenty of hope and plenty of fear. June 2, 2004, was the date established for the bone marrow transplant. Once at City of Hope, Laura was going through radiation and the toughest-yet chemo. She had arrived at the hospital standing strong, but after a week of this, she was no longer standing.

As we approached the magic date of June 2, I became nervous. The question that was on my mind was: “What if the donor backs out?” We were at a perilous point of no return. Our doctor, Vinod Pullarkat, M.D., assured us, saying: “The donor has had plenty of counseling and time for self-reflection. At this point they almost never back out.” Still, I worried.

But he was right. The bone marrow arrived from some unknown place in the world, right on schedule. Now
it would be a battle for Laura’s transplant to complete its process and engraft into her bones.

The next few weeks were really the hardest for me. Laura was waiting in a painful fog, and the white blood cells took their sweet time regenerating.

Finally, thanks to God and the staff at City of Hope, she slowly got back on her feet. After 100 days, we were able to return to Albuquerque — home sweet home.

The identity of the donor was still unknown to us although he and Laura had exchanged a couple of letters. Communication with donors is censored for the first year after transplant. It was a rule that made sense, but we sure were curious. And we soon learned that Darren was just as curious.

So after that first telephone conversation, a year after Laura’s transplant, Darren was booking travel for himself and his new wife, Lisa, to meet the person that now shared his bone marrow. For Darren, I think saving Laura was a way to lessen the pain of the loss of Lori. He connected with Laura and our whole family immediately.

We had a big dinner party for friends and family to meet Darren. When I introduced him, I called him a hero. Afterward, he came up to me and said, “Knock off the hero stuff.”

Ten years have now passed. Darren and his family are really part of our family now. He and I share many of the same hobbies and have become great friends. We get together at least once year and sometimes we reflect on the process of giving and receiving the gift of life. He is always modest. I asked him once how it feels to have done what he did. He always shifts the credit away from himself and has even thanked us for the opportunity!

Heroes don’t think about themselves first. Something just clicks, and in an instant they know that this is the thing to do.

– Craig Sowers, husband and friend

Laura Z. Sowers has been in the position of being a patient with a serious illness as well as caring for loved ones who were seriously ill. She shares what she has learned and how her faith guided her, in the book "Twice Blessed: Strength and Hope for the Caregiving Season." Originally published in 2005 by Broadman & Holman Publishers, Laura has recently updated her book, which is now available in Kindle on Amazon.com. 

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Learn more about how to become a bone marrow donor.