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Transplantation: The Story of My Blood Brother

Two photos of Chris and Sue.
Two photos of Chris and Sue.
Left: Chris and Sue meet in September, 2005 / Right: Chris and Sue enjoying the Blue Jays in 2016.

In 1992, Carolyn Smith was rocked by the news that she was diagnosed with leukemia and may require a bone marrow transplant to survive. The caring, loving, dynamic Smith family rallied immediately as the whole family was tested to see if they could be a match for her.

Fortunately, Carolyn went on to beat her cancer without a transplant and is healthy to this day. The family, in true Smith style, chose to stay on the anonymous registry in order to be available to anyone in need.  They could not know over the years how this act would play out in the life of another.

Sue’s 2003 diagnosis

Mark and Sue Volkingburgh
Mark and Sue Volkingburgh

In early 2003, bone marrow testing indicated that 39-year-old Sue VanVolkingburgh had mylodysplastic anemia, which eventually morphed into aplastic anemia: a disease of bone marrow failure, meaning the body cannot supply itself with the blood it needs.

After diagnosis was made that May, came a daunting path of blood and platelet transfusions (sometimes several per week) and treatment trials which were overwhelming harsh and ultimately, unsuccessful. Sue became fully dependent on a supply of donated blood and platelets for day to day survival. By fall 2003, it was clear that there were no other options — a bone marrow transplant was the only hope.

Luckily, Sue had been reassured that she had a perfect match waiting on what was formerly the Unrelated Bone Marrow Donor Registry. Timed for January 2004, both donor and patient were readied: Sue, now on a cocktail of antirejection medication, immunosuppressants and steroids, required a harsh blast of chemotherapy followed by full body radiation.

Chris’s anonymous donation

Chris and Donna Smith
Chris and Donna Smith

Chris Smith was asked to donate bone marrow 12 years after he joined the registry. He said yes! Chris took some time off work and had his marrow drawn under anesthesia, not knowing the stranger whose life he was about to impact so greatly. On January 20, 2004, Chris’s marrow was infused intravenously to Sue and the battle was on. By this time, Sue’s immune system was effectively absent, and she would rely on the new marrow engrafting and becoming functional in her body.

Early on, Sue received a letter from Chris encouraging her and acknowledging that the family would be praying for her; incredible and overwhelming. What kind of person was this donor?

Becoming a blood brother

After receiving a letter of consent to share contact details, a meeting was arranged, filmed and shared by CBC as part of an Honoring Our Lifeblood Event, held by Canadian Blood Services (at that time responsible for the Unrelated Registry). There seemed no way to thank such a selfless act as marrow donation, but undoubtedly watching the success story was gratifying for both Chris and the clinicians.

Over the years since, the Smith and VanVolkingburgh families have become close friends, sharing joys, struggles and much laughter over time. Sue calls Chris her “blood brother”, as his marrow now makes her blood.

This fall, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of transplant, Chris and Sue (and families) will participate in the Bruce Dennison Fundraising golf tournament and will likely share many more laughs as the families gather.

 This Foundation raises money to help the Canadian Blood Services Donor Registry find donor matches as quickly and effectively as possible, and provides worldwide courier service, free of charge, to any Canadian transplant hospital.  Their story continues and they will continue to participate wherever we can to promote the value, simplicity and urgency of bone marrow /stem cell transplantation.

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