Preparing for retirement, especially when you’re moving on to start homesteading on your 90-acre farm, is an exciting time in a person’s life.
However, Melinda Anderson, now 52, didn’t realize she’d be taking on something bigger.
"I thought I was the picture of health,” says the Corinth, Kentucky resident.
After taking a few weeks off from the automotive factory she’d worked at for 20 years at the beginning of 2016, using up some of her saved vacation time, she started noticing small warnings—a bruise on her leg, a sinus infection and later shortness of breath and skin discoloration, but she didn’t think it was anything serious.
Following her last day of work in February, Anderson’s husband Matt convinced her to see a doctor.
"I received a call within an hour of returning from my doctor’s appointment that day, telling me to go immediately to the emergency room—I only had one-third of the blood I was supposed to have,” she says. "When I got there and my blood results came back, the emergency medicine doctor said he didn’t even know how I was still standing up. My hemoglobin was at 4.8 (grams/deciliter)—normal levels are between 12.1 and 15.1—and my platelets were at 8! That’s when I started to get scared; I realized how serious this was.
"God had to be with me—there was no other way I could have survived at that point.”
Anderson was admitted to the hospital and was immediately given a pint of platelets and three pints of red blood cells. She saw an oncologist who did a bone marrow biopsy and determined she did not have leukemia; some additional tests led to a diagnosis not often seen: aplastic anemia.
"Aplastic anemia is a rare disease in which the bone marrow and the hematopoietic stem cells that reside there are damaged,” says Stephen Medlin, DO, associate professor in the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine’s Division of Hematology Oncology and director of the UC Health Hematologic Malignancies and George L. Strike Bone Marrow Transplant Center within the UC Cancer Institute. "This causes a deficiency of all three blood cell types: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Aplastic refers to inability of the stem cells to generate mature blood cells.”
Anderson found her way to UC and Medlin after her best friend and neighbor Tammy did some investigating on quality programs close to home.
"My oncologist in Frankfort, Kentucky, Dr. Rickey Myhand, was going to send me to Vanderbilt, but I asked to come to UC instead—it is so much closer to where I live,” she says. "He agreed that it was a great program and that I would get the treatment needed. I’m so glad that I did because Dr. Medlin and his staff were just the best; I get emotional thinking about it. And Mr. Mak (Jack McWilliams) who sits at the front desk was so encouraging; he was almost like my counselor. I never felt rushed, and they always treated me like I mattered, not like I was just a number. They all became like family to me.”
The George L. Strike Bone Marrow Transplant Center recently received three-year accreditation from the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT)
for both adult autologous (self) and allogenic (donated) stem cell therapy, making it the only adult academic program locally with this achievement.
FACT is the internationally recognized accrediting organization for facilities providing therapies that use stem cells for bone marrow transplant and immunotherapy. Accredited programs meet their standards for high-quality clinical and laboratory practice in cellular therapies.
Bone Marrow Transplant Becomes a Reality, Donor Discovered
Anderson was given the option of a bone marrow transplant for treatment; no one in her family was a match so she was put on the national donor list.
Little did she know that Olivia Lawrence, a University of Missouri student with a passion for helping others, would be a perfect match. Lawrence, who has ambitions to become a doctor, felt compelled to become a donor after speaking to representatives of DKMS - We Delete Blood Cancer
during a blood drive at her school the prior year.
"Mizzou’s homecoming blood drive is actually one of the largest blood drives in the world,” she says. "I started talking to one of the student representatives at the booth, and I’ll be honest, I was a little skeptical at first. I was thinking, ‘All I have to do is be swabbed, and then, I may get a free trip (to have the bone marrow harvested if there’s a match)?’ But I went ahead and did it; I was super excited to help someone in need.”
Anderson was soon told she had a match who was willing to donate.
"All I knew is that it was a 19-year-old female college student. When I was 19, I wasn’t thinking about anyone else but myself—I certainly wasn’t thinking about donating my bone marrow and saving a life,” says Anderson. "I was so grateful, and I knew this person was so special.”
At the same time, Lawrence got the call that she was a match for a patient in Kentucky.
"We were on our way to Indiana to see my grandparents when I got the call,” she says. "We headed home and a week or two later, I was on a plane to [Washington,] DC for some initial tests and to donate some blood that I would later use myself; a week or two after, that I was back for the actual procedure.”
Lawrence needed to have her bone marrow harvested for direct bone marrow injection, as opposed to intravenous collection and transplantation.
"I had to go under anesthesia, and they used a needle to take out my bone marrow,” she says. "It hurt, but it wasn’t anything unbearable, and the recovery time was only about two weeks. I’m kind of sad—my scars have faded now. I liked those scars.”
After undergoing chemotherapy to eradicate her own immune system, Anderson received that bone marrow in April 2016, but she didn’t get to meet Lawrence right away.
"There’s a process and a form for donors meeting those whom they’ve helped, and we had not started the process yet,” Anderson says. "We were able to send small gifts and notes, however; I sent her a silver heart with a Helen Keller quote inscription—‘The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched—they must be felt with the heart.’ I wanted her to know how special her gift was to me.”
Lawrence also sent Anderson a note with inspirational messages that gave her hope, and when Anderson finally decided she was ready to make contact with her donor, Lawrence’s contact information was already waiting for her.
"I filled out the form as soon as I had my bone marrow harvested,” Lawrence says. "I wanted to meet her!”
‘Blood Sisters’ Are Born
In May 2017, Anderson had already dealt with many complications, including graft-versus-host disease which develops when the donor's immune cells mistakenly attack the patient's normal cells; she was also undergoing photopheresis, where blood is treated with certain agents and irradiated and then returned to the patient.
Then late one night, as she was checking her email, she saw an unfamiliar address pop up. "Here comes this email with pictures of this sweet girl with such a wonderful smile,” she says. "She told me to ‘Stay strong’—a message one of my dear friends also gave me when I was first diagnosed— and ‘Life is better when you’re laughing.’ It was my first glimpse at a person who I already felt so connected to, and her words meant so much to me.”
From then on, the "blood sisters” as they call each other, remained in contact via social media and email, and Lawrence eventually brought up the idea of meeting in person.
"We were going to visit my grandparents in Indiana over Christmas, and it’s close to Melinda, so we thought we’d make a stop in Cincinnati to finally meet,” she says.
The two families—Lawrence with her parents and four siblings and her grandmother and Anderson with Tammy—met for hugs and barbecue at Eli’s.
"When she stepped out of the car, I instantly knew it was her,” says Lawrence.
The two hugged and tried to fight back tears.
"She is just so sweet,” says Anderson. "She and her whole family are just wonderful people, and now, we’re all like family.”
"It wasn’t awkward at all—it was like we knew each other; we just couldn’t stop talking,” adds Lawrence. "We joked and talked about being related by bone marrow now. When Melinda’s hair started to grow back (after chemotherapy), her hair became curly. She said she got it from me.”
Anderson gave Lawrence a Christmas ornament engraved with the quote about laughing that she included in her initial outreach to Anderson—the quote that meant so much. She also brought Lawrence handwritten notes from her supportive family and friends, without whom she says she wouldn’t have made it, thanking Lawrence for saving their loved one’s life.
"That’s when the tears came,” laughs Lawrence.
A New Lease on Life
Lawrence says she has no regrets about her decision to give. She’ll be graduating with a biology degree in May, and she’s hoping her new friend will come celebrate with her at the ceremony.
"I encourage all of my friends to get swabbed,” she says. "It was just such a small thing to do to save someone’s life—to give them that extra chance. It was kinda neat to find out that I had such a close biological match in Melinda; that’s the science geek in me.”
Anderson is now continuing her life with Lawrence’s bone marrow. She’s able to spend time with her family and her grand-daughter. She still talks to her "blood sister” often.
And she says she’s learned through all of this, even the littlest things matter.
"I just look at life in a totally different way,” she says. "I used to be a smoker, but when I think about smoking now, I think about my health, and I’d be letting down God, my family, my friends, the people at UC and Olivia. I’m obligated to do my best because I’ve been given this second chance at life,” she says. "I look forward to mowing my grass; even mopping the floor, sometimes, I’ll look up and say, ‘Thank you Lord for letting me be here to do this; thank you for this second chance.’
"My husband Matt, my friend Tammy and my brother Richard … these three put their lives on hold to drive me to and from Cincinnati on a daily basis for treatment for several months, pick up groceries, complete household chores and more. Without them, the medical staff and the people who called to check on me and prayed for me none of this would have been possible. I’m thankful for them, for Olivia and for the wonderful team at UC. There isn’t a better place to be treated in the entire country.”