Photo by Lee Pellegrini
Nearly seven years ago, Eric Williamson stopped at a table staffed by fellow Loyola University Chicago students promoting bone marrow donations—and because he did, a little girl in Brazil is in remission from leukemia today.
Williamson, then a senior at Loyola—now a Boston College graduate student—happened to wander by a table for the “Delete Blood Cancer” campaign by DKMS, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the fight against blood cancer and blood disorders. The promotional material he read characterized the chances of a bone marrow match as low, but noted that the potential impact on a recipient could be life-saving.
“I was curious, and after learning the risk on my part was very small, I felt there was no reason for me not to sign up,” recalled the Dallas native, a doctoral student in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development Measurement, Evaluation, Statistics and Assessment department.
Williamson agreed to a cheek swab, which resulted in the addition of his DNA into a worldwide registry—and so began the chain of events that would bring him into the lives of a six-year-old girl named Thaiza from Sao Paolo, and her parents.
Bone marrow is the fatty tissue within the bone cavities containing stem cells that produce red blood cells, which carry infection-fighting white blood cells and clot-producing platelets. The transplanted marrow replaces tissue damaged or destroyed through disease, infection, or high-dose chemotherapy. According to DKMS, 30 percent of patients find a matching donor within their families, but 70 percent—or nearly 12,000 annually—must rely on a benevolent stranger to voluntarily donate.
What were the chances that the marrow of a tall male Texan would match a little Brazilian girl?
“Eric is a gift from God to our family."
“The lion’s share of our genes are very similar or nearly identical between humans,” explained Biology Professor and Chair Welkin Johnson. “But there are a few exceptions, and one major deviation comprises the genes that encode the so-called human leukocyte antigens. The HLA encodes immunity proteins that have evolved to protect the human population from a broad, diverse array of pathogens, and consequently, these genes vary considerably from one person to the next.
“Even siblings can have very different HLA genes, which is why the search for donors involves casting a very wide net to increase the chances of finding a match. Thus, the most critical element of finding an equivalent is HLA typing. A close HLA match—meaning that the donor and recipient’s tissues are more likely to be immunologically compatible—increases the chance that the patient’s body will accept donated cells as its own and not fight them.”
Following graduation from Loyola, Williamson joined AmeriCorps, the national voluntary civil service program, and moved to Boston to teach at a charter school. But in April of 2015, he received a surprising message: His bone marrow matched a cancer patient in need of a transplant. Would he be willing to donate?
After consulting with a surgeon and previous donors at Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute, a worldwide leader in comprehensive cancer treatment and research institution, Williamson underwent the two-hour procedure in July. He spent a week at home recuperating.
“The worst side effect of the surgery was just some soreness where they withdrew the marrow,” he said. “Giving up one week of time was nothing compared to the potential benefit for the recipient.”
Meanwhile, Williamson’s bone marrow was headed to Brazil, where Thaiza—already a survivor of bone cancer—was undergoing treatment for cancer of her body’s blood-forming tissues at Grupo de Apoio a Crianças e Adolescentes com Câncer (Support Group for Children and Adolescents with Cancer, or GRAACC), an oncology hospital and social-service institution affiliated with the Federal University of São Paulo. GRAACC annually treats as many as 3,500 children and adolescents with cancer throughout Brazil.
Nearly 18 months after Williamson’s surgery, his bone marrow was transfused into Thaiza, giving her a lifeline and a chance for remission, with success rates running as high as 80 percent.
Now 10 years old, she leads a normal life without restrictions, and returns to GRAACC for regular examinations.
“Eric is a gift from God to our family,” said Thaiza’s father, Chicao. “He was chosen by God to save her life. He said ‘yes’ simply to be good to his neighbor! We will always be grateful to him for such a noble gesture.”
Thaiza understands that her blood was sick, so she had chemotherapy, Chicao explained, and to be cured, she had to change her “blood factory” through a special blood bag, and that Williamson was the donor of this new blood.
“He’s the blood brother she doesn’t have,” said Chicao.
This past September, Williamson received a second unexpected, and extraordinary, surprise: a five-day visit to Sao Paulo arranged and underwritten by GRAACC, so he could meet Thaiza and her parents. A video crew captured the entire trip, from Boston to Brazil, including the emotional rendezvous between donor and recipient. [View video]
“Meeting Thiaza changed my life,” said Williamson. “I’ll always hold in my heart the memory of the first time we saw each other, and the overwhelming feeling of being loved that came from—literally—dozens of hugs from her parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, and close friends. I felt such overwhelming joy from an entire extended family I didn’t realize I had, all because over seven years ago I happened to stop at a table and swab my cheek.”
“Eric is a very special human being,” said Chicao. “We loved meeting him, and now he is part of our family.”
To learn more about donating bone marrow, which can be done repeatedly, go to www.dkms.org, or call 212-209-6700.
Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | February 2020