A simple act in Rhode Island, a lifesaving transplant in Duarte

January 1, 2014 | by

Stem cell donations are usually an anonymous gift, with people who want to help others donating their lifesaving cells simply from the rightness and joy of being able to save another human being. The donor and the recipient almost never meet – except in special circumstances. On the morning of Jan. 1, 2014, at the 125th Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., those special circumstances were in place. Former City of Hope patient Ben Teller met the woman who saved him from Hodgkin lymphoma: Nancy Haag.

Teller had previously spoken of his journey through the disease and transplant process, but Haag's experience has not been shared publicly. This is her story.

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Nancy Haag was attending a community fair with her family near their Newport, R.I., home in 1995, when she saw a booth for the national bone marrow donor registry.

Nancy Haag

Stem cell donor Nancy Haag, right, signed up for a bone marrow registry almost two decades ago. Finally, she got the call – and saved a young man's life. Haag is shown here with her children, from left, Lindsay, Devon, Kelsey, Jill, Tre and Julie, and her husband, Gene.

On an impulse, she signed up.

Unlike today’s method of swabbing the inside cheek of a prospective enrollee, organizers collected a sample of her blood that day. “I remember having that big wad of gauze on me, and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Who knows, maybe they’ll call me.’”

Seventeen years later, in August 2012, they did.

By that time, Haag was a 47-year-old preschool teacher and mother of six who was living in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

The call came during the “crazy-busy” week before her eldest daughter was getting married.

The Connecticut Be the Match office that had organized the Rhode Island donation drive nearly two decades before was calling to let her know she was a potential match, and to ask if she would undergo more thorough testing to confirm her compatibility. Haag learned only that the patient was a male in his early 20s, and had Hodgkin lymphoma.

“I just started thinking about the fact that my daughter and my son were about that age, and certainly, I would do whatever I needed to do for this young man to have a chance.”

Haag already knew about the ravages of Hodgkin lymphoma. When a dear friend and mother of a little boy in her preschool class was diagnosed with the disease years before, “I went through the journey with her,” Haag said. The friend survived chemotherapy and an autologous transplant, in which her stem cells were purified and infused back into her.

In the frenzied days before the wedding, Haag took time to have her doctor draw vials of her blood, then, meticulously following “really explicit directions,” she FedEx-ed her specimens back in a specially designed box packed with blocks of ice.

“I was still thinking they’re probably looking at 10 different people and there’s no way it will be me,” Haag recalled.

Ever since having five of her six children within a six-year period, “I have always been on the anemic side,” Haag said. About four months before finding out she was a potential match, she had tried donating plasma, but was turned down because she was anemic. As a result, “I started taking iron all summer long.” By the time the unexpected call came, “my health was optimal and I was perfectly ready to donate the bone marrow.”

On Thursday, Oct. 11, she and her husband, Gene, flew to Denver, and her stem cells were harvested the next day at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and flown to the patient at City of Hope. By the following Monday, Haag was back teaching preschool, and even taught Bible study that night.

“I feel like I’ve been given a blessing,” said Haag. “I feel really lucky. Somebody might be really excited to do this for somebody else, but never get chosen. You can’t put this on your bucket list. You can’t make it happen, but you can be available.”

When she received the invitation to meet the young man she saved, Haag, now 48, eagerly accepted. She waited until their in-person meeting at the Rose Parade on Jan. 1 to communicate with him, but after learning his name – Ben Teller – she began avidly reading his blog, “Cuck Fancer,” also the title of the nonprofit organization he created to help young adult cancer survivors. (Twenty-four-year old Teller was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at 18 during his first year of college, relapsed at 20 and at 22, and now that his health has been restored, works as a media professional for a sports network.)

Before she knew she would be meeting Teller, Haag and her daughter, Jill, had begun planning a bone marrow drive at Jill’s college, Azusa Pacific (in Azusa, Calif.). Recently reading Teller’s blog, Haag was heartened to learn that he also has been championing the cause of bone marrow donation.

“I found out that he went to college campuses to get young people to join the registry. That’s awesome. He’s right there in the L.A. area, and that’s where Jill is, so I’m really looking forward to us joining forces.”

Haag marvels at the series of coincidences that led her to become a donor: from signing up nearly two decades before (when Teller was still a healthy child) to bolstering her iron level so she’d be able to donate. She's also amazed that her daughter chose a college that turned out to be five miles from City of Hope, where Haag’s cells gave Teller new life.

Life’s seemingly random occurrences no longer seem so random to her.

“All those seeds that are being scattered have come together,” she said.

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After their meeting, Haag joined Teller on City of Hope's Rose Parade float, titled "Turning Hopes and Dreams into Reality." They were accompanied by Teller's physician,  Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope and a pioneer in hematopoietic cell transplantation.

Read other riders' stories.