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Cancer survivor Bill Hallahan knew almost nothing about the person who had saved his life. He hadn't even learned the name of his bone marrow donor until one year after the transplant.
But when 49-year-old Hallahan stepped into the Westin Waltham-Boston hotel last month for a Dana-Farber celebration of marrow and stem cell donors, he spotted a 30-something man waiting in the lobby with his wife. He's not sure why, but Hallahan sensed this was him.
"I walked up and asked if he was Brian Roberts, and it was as if we'd known each other forever."
A year earlier, Hallahan — who comes from Charlton, N.Y., outside Schenectady — had faced a health crisis. The chronic myelogenous leukemia he had been living with for 13 years took a frightening turn, and doctors at Dana-Farber and partnering Brigham and Women's Hospital recommended an allogeneic stem cell transplant, which comes from an unrelated donor. Staff members at the Institute searched the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) registry and international registries for someone with the right blood tissue type to help Hallahan's immune system rebuild after his high-dose treatment.
They found Roberts, a then-33-year-old salesman from Sanford, Maine. Roberts was tested and agreed to undergo the uncomfortable surgical procedure, which involved removing marrow from his pelvic bone to collect the needed stem cells. After his transplant and a lengthy hospital stay, Hallahan spent the next 12 months at home avoiding germs and recuperating; Roberts went back to work the next week.
Like others in their situation, they remained strangers, as NMDP rules prohibit donors and recipients from meeting until at least a year post-transplant. Some, in fact, never get together because of long distances or personal preferences. But when staff members were planning the program's first-ever recognition lunch for donors, they realized it would coincide with the one-year anniversary of Hallahan's procedure.
That's how Hallahan and Roberts found each other in the Westin lobby before the Nov. 21 luncheon. About 100 donors and their guests, as well as a handful of patients, were present to witness the pair's public embrace during the program. Their wives, who had also just met, held hands as their husbands took turns at the podium for brief speeches. Others in the crowd pulled out their tissues.
"It was fantastic and touching to see how many people were there," Roberts remarked later.
"I had mixed feelings about meeting him," offered Hallahan. "I mean, what do you say to someone who saved your life? No words can do it justice."
While Hallahan's cancer story began in January of 1992, when he was diagnosed with leukemia and received treatment elsewhere, Roberts had signed up to be a marrow donor in 1994 because of a former high-school teacher whose son needed a transplant. Roberts wasn't a match, but he remained on the registry, his marrow untapped until needed by Hallahan.
At the time of his donation, Roberts' grandfather and mother were both ill from cancer. His grandfather passed away shortly before the procedure, and his mother died two weeks later. So in the face of great sadness, he was given the opportunity to help a stranger.
"My wife, April, and I had been waiting a year to meet Bill and see what an impact this has made in his life," Roberts says. "These two wonderful people made me realize... that God brought us together not only to heal my pain, but to do something so much greater: to give another man a chance to fulfill his purpose here on earth. The credit goes to those who found the treatments to save Bill's life. His children now have the chance to enjoy his love for a long time to come, and I have another person who will be a lifelong friend."
Read more stories about the stem cell transplant patient experience