A teenager with leukemia receives the gift of a bone marrow transplant and, for the next 10 years, gives back


Karin Roesle with Daniel Schubert, who donated his bone marrow to her. (Courtesy of Roesle family)
December 15, 2011

When a young person dies, we try to make sense of this seemingly senseless act. We develop a narrative for this Tragedy — capital “T,” as in Shakespearean Tragedy — that will align the facts into a kind of coherence we can live with. We borrow story lines from the Bible or other religious texts, novels and plays, in order to draw comfort — someone has passed this way before — and to fend off the awful randomness of fate.

In the case of 29-year-old Karin Roesle, who died in August, the tale invoked is Lazarus, who, according to the Bible, was brought back to life by Jesus four days after his death.

“Some of you may not have known Karin’s Lazarus story,” the Rev. Mike Angell told mourners at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, as he delivered the homily at her memorial service Aug. 30. “Karin’s Lazarus story, her coming back from the brink of death, was not something she announced, not an achievement she touted. Karin did not often dwell on her return to life with her words. To borrow a phrase from Parker Palmer, ‘She let her life speak.’ ”

Indeed, Roesle traveled to the brink of death and back several times. And, like Lazarus, she owed her life quite literally to the intervention of one man, a complete stranger.

When Roesle died, her parents, Charlie and Carol Roesle, 65, notified friends, family and church members in the Severna Park community. Then, Carol did something out of the ordinary. She e-mailed a man living in Germany whom she had never personally met: “I want to thank you for the last 11 years that we had with her, thanks to you,” Carol wrote to Daniel Schubert three days after her daughter’s death. “Charlie and I are so grateful for the gift of your bone marrow. She was a very special girl.”

Eleven years ago, when Karin Roesle was a 17-year-old senior at Severna Park High School, she came home with bruises on her arms. She was on the flag team, and at first Carol thought that perhaps her daughter had bumped herself with a pole. But the bruises spread, and a doctor diagnosed leukemia. “My first reaction was, ‘You must have the wrong person,’ ” Carol recalled.

Karin underwent radiation and chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but because of a genetic variation, she would need a bone marrow transplant to survive. In the next few months, as her parents scrambled to locate a match, Karin grew sicker and lapsed into a coma.

Fortunately, a bone marrow donor registry found a potential match. Unfortunately, the “match” had outdated contact information. Carol and Charlie paid an investigator to find Schubert, who was living in Germany.

The Roesles would not learn Schubert’s name for two years, because of protocols governing bone marrow transplants. By the time they did, Karin was a happy sophomore at the College of William and Mary. They wrote to Schubert thanking him, but Karin, curious, wanted to do more.

When her roommate, Elizabeth Anne Laningham Bellamy, spent a semester abroad in Salzburg, Austria, Roesle went to visit her and detoured across the border to Germany. Laningham Bellamy recalled that Roesle really wanted to ask Schubert why he decided to help her. Schubert and his wife explained “that when the opportunity was presented to them to possibly save a life, they felt like they had to try.’’

That stuck with Roesle.

She increased her involvement in her college’s bone marrow drive. And when she graduated, she continued to volunteer for cancer organizations and lent a hand with youth groups at her church. Twice, she went to New Orleans to help rebuild in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. And she wasn’t shy about occasionally strong-arming others into doing the right thing. One of her friends, Catherine Sawyer, had registered to be a potential bone marrow donor after meeting Roesle during her freshman year of college. Four years later, Sawyer learned that she was one of three potential matches for a young man. “I was instantly scared and nervous,” Sawyer recalled in an e-mail.

On the phone with Roesle, Sawyer equivocated, mentioning logistical impediments.

Roesle dismissed the obstacles. “You don’t have a choice,” she said emphatically.

It may have been implied, but neither friends nor family members ever heard Roesle, who worked for the accounting firm KPMG, talk about the motivation behind her extensive volunteer work.

For her part, Carol Roesle speculates that her daughter’s experience with leukemia and the 100 days she spent in the hospital made her understand the stakes in a way that is foreign to most young people. “I just have the feeling that she was always doing something because maybe she knew she didn’t have all the time in the world,” Carol says.

A decade after her successful bone marrow transplant, Karin developed a brain tumor, likely because of the radiation she had been subjected to as she battled leukemia. Doctors’ efforts to treat the tumor were unsuccessful.

“Karin understood that she was given an abundance of life, the gift of extra years,” Angell reminded mourners that day in August. “But Karin understood that the gift was not just for her. Karin understood that she had been given an abundance of life, and she got busy giving that abundance away.”

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