Correction to This Article
This article misspelled the last name of Bob Winkelmann.

Stem Cell Transplants Allow Strangers to Form Bonds

Kerry Lutz, left, shares a smile with Bob Winkleman, who received stem cells from her; at right is the author, another stem cell recipient.
Kerry Lutz, left, shares a smile with Bob Winkleman, who received stem cells from her; at right is the author, another stem cell recipient. (From Ibby Caputo)
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By Ibby Caputo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The first things I noticed about Kerry Lutz were her bright, red, curly hair and her relaxed, tomboyish attitude. I liked her instantly. We have a lot in common, I realized. We're both 28, single and talkative. I'm you and you're me, I thought as we stood face to face. She's in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, and I'm a reporter interning at The Post. But she asks a lot of questions, and I love peace and travel.

Kerry and I also represent two sides of the same coin. I was 26 when I received lifesaving stem cells. She was 26 when she gave her stem cells to save a life.

Disease, like disability, is one of those flukes. Somebody contracts AIDS after a single passionate fling; somebody else gets hit by a car and is instantly paralyzed. And me? Two years ago I was given a diagnosis of acute myelogenous leukemia, a malignancy of the bone marrow, and I was saved by the stem cells of a stranger. Kerry was the stranger who saved someone else's life.

I got to know Kerry last month. Two years after donating her stem cells, she had learned that they had been given to 67-year-old Bob Winkleman, a personal trainer who had acute myelogenous leukemia. Now she'd flown back to the States to meet him.

As the three of us sat on the patio overlooking the pond in Bob's back yard in a suburb of Chicago, I asked questions like a reporter trying to get a feel for their situation, as if I did not already have an intimate knowledge of going through a transplant, at least from my side of the coin.

Kerry explained her side: She had joined the national bone marrow registry on a whim while at a blood drive in college. All she knew about Bob when she was identified as his potential match was that he was a man dying from leukemia. She was told there was an emergency and was asked to come in to a medical center in Fairfax the next day for further testing. Soon after, she started a series of injections, one shot a day for four days, to stimulate her bone marrow to produce stem cells and release them into her blood. Kerry said she felt tingling around the injection sites, but no other side effects.

Within a week, all of Kerry's blood was removed through an IV in her left arm, passed through a machine that separated out the blood-forming cells, and then returned to her body through an IV in her right arm. She said the process took five hours, during which time she watched a DVD of the film "Memento" and talked finances with her father, who had come to the hospital to help her pass the time.

Kerry described the filtering as a "circle" of blood.

The process had been a circle for me, too. As a nurse hung the pale pink bag of stem cells above me, I held hands with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, a friend who had flown in for the day, my oncologist and the Buddhist chaplain at the hospital in Boston. We formed a circle around the cells, donated by a stranger, and said a prayer. Then my brother put on Mahalia Jackson's "God Put a Rainbow in the Sky," and I bounced along to the rhythm in bed while my guests chatted as if they were at a party and not squeezed into an isolation room. Before the song was over, I looked up at the bag and everything but it went fuzzy.

It held my fate.

As gracefully as I could, I shuffled everyone but the nurse out of my room, then I grabbed the pink bucket beside my bed and vomited. I began to shake uncontrollably.

"What is happening to me?" I asked the nurse.

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