Kevin Zempko's Story

Seven years ago I embarked on the process of becoming a bone marrow donor with the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program. Completely anonymous process at the time, I was only equipped with the fact that I would be potentially helping a person who was female, 44 years of age, battling leukemia, needed a transplant, and lived somewhere on planet earth. Needless to say, after numerous blood withdraws and extensive testing here in San Diego, I traveled to Georgetown University and then to Fairfax, Virginia in Feb of 2008.

I would spend a week there preparing my body for stem cell harvesting; here’s what my donation process looked like per the DoD website, “the second donation type is a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. This is another way to take blood-making cells from the body. For five days before donation, the donor is given injections of a drug called filgrastim. The drug makes the donor’s body release the marrow or stem cells from the bones into the blood. On the fifth day, these extra cells are then gathered using a special blood filtering machine called an apheresis machine. The donor travels to an Apheresis Center – usually in Washington, D.C. or California – where needles access two different veins, usually one in each arm. The donor’s blood is drawn from one vein, filtered through the apheresis machine, and returned through the other vein. This procedure takes between 4 and 6 hours. Donors typically spend about six days near the Apheresis Center in order to receive the filgrastim injections. Common side effects for this type of donation are flu-like symptoms: bone pain, headache, fatigue, nausea.”

My procedure took 5 and half hours and felt like I was hit by a bus afterwards. I was scared to death when I saw the size of the needle that the nurse was preparing to stick into my left arm, but was told to suck it up Marine – hahaha. She was right. I tried to hide my fears though I was shaky, pale, and sweaty. After the procedure, my bag of stem cells was then quickly whisked away by a courier, I think Dianne [my recipient] had received them that same evening or early the next morning in Calgary. Then she went right into the transplant phase. I can’t even image what that must have been like for her and her family and friends. I kept that in mind as I felt completely drained after harvesting of my stem cells…it could be worse.

A year later, in 2009, I was contacted by the DoD Bone Marrow program, informing me that my bone marrow recipient was alive and well. At this time I signed off on consent forms, allowing Dianne to contact me. I first received an email from her, one that brought immediate tears to my eyes after reading the first few sentences, “I just got word about 2 hours ago that you were my donor to help me survive leukemia. I am overwhelmed and have spent the last 2 hours in tears as I give thanks for having you enter my life in this very unusual way! Since last November when I was told that my doctors found a donor, I have thought so much about one day being able to contact you. On Sept 7th/2007 I went to a walk-in-clinic here in Calgary, Alberta and was told the dreadful news that I had cancer, and my only chance of survival was to start chemo, radiation, then hopefully receive a bone marrow transplant. It was the most devastating day of my life. Coming home to tell my husband of 17 years and my 3 boys (twins that are 15, and a 12 year old) that I would enter the hospital the next day and our lives were about to change. My name is Dianne Mahura, if you don't already know that.”.

At this point I finally realized the importance of my decision to go through this process as a bone marrow donor. It was not just Dianne Mahura who I was saving, it was a wife, mother, daughter, sister, community member, friend, etc. You see there are statistics for this stuff, even after being selected to be potential donors, some people don’t go through with the process because of a number of reasons, e.g., pain of the procedure, burden of being away from work, financial concerns, being away from family, and/or future side effects of the drugs. That was mind blowing for me. I’m a helper by nature so that immediately outweighed any risks. I was willing to donate as soon I received a phone call from the DoD Marrow program. But - understandably so - they sent me an informational package and DVD – your decision must be a well-informed one, shared with family and friends.

Dianne officiating Kevin Z's nuptialsOver the years she [Dianne] has traveled to San Diego a few times. She watched me run a marathon and even shared our great American holiday - Fourth of July with my family and friends. Likewise, I have taken numerous trips to Calgary to meet her family and friends, participate in a few ‘Light The Night’ fund raising walks for people battling blood cancers, took in the great Calgary Stampede and explored their beautiful country. It’s a decision that changed my life and lead with my bone marrow recipient, Dianne Mahura, officiating my October wedding to my beautiful wife, Erica. We found out years later that our stem cells were a 10-10 match. Her blood type even changed to mine, O+. She explained at our wedding that now I was Erica’s 10-10 match. I’m sure she had a few folks crying at that point, I know I was – haha.

With all of this said, yesterday the Calgary Herald paper featured our story on their front page paper. Obviously I'm thrilled I could do my part to help out Dianne and her family. I encourage others to do the same, check out [military:] and get registered to help fight blood cancers.

Once again thanks for all the kind words family and friends. I’m glad our story can promote awareness and provide hope for others in need. Everyone should meet Dianne, she’s a real treat - the kind of person that will change your life! The world can be a good place, we just have to learn the simple principle of helping others, especially those in need.