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Written By CONSTANCE SCRAFIELD
It was a deeply emotional moment when Temine Ash and Evelina Makar met, in person for the first time, at Pearson Airport last Thursday, December 27.
That is to say, as Ms. Ash recounted, “We were both crying until I looked down and saw that she had exactly the same suitcase as I have. Then, we began to laugh.”
“And my cosmetic case is the same one too,” added Ms. Makar.
Mike and Temine Ash had invited the Citizen back to the warm welcome of their kitchen to meet Eveline, the young Polish woman who donated her stem cells which have saved Temine Ash's life.
The two ladies were sitting on opposite sides of the table. Evelina looked across the table at Temine.
“I can't believe we're genetic twins,” she commented.
The genetic similarities between them, although they look nothing like each other, is closer than that between Temine and her own sister.
Becoming a donor happened in a way from which organizations here might well learn.
“I study at the university,” Evelina began. “I'm doing my Masters in Spanish Philology. I'm studying Spanish,” she said as an aside and a joke about her own black hair and almond shaped eyes, “because I look like a Spanish girl. I work now also as a professor in Spanish. I would like to go to Spain to work and study.”
She told us, “They asked me on the street. I was a blood donor and young people from the university came after to me to ask me me to register to be a donor for DKMS, the international organization for stem cells only.
“There are choices to be a donor only for people [needing stem cells] in just Poland or for all over the world. They wanted me to be only for Poland but I wanted to be for all the world. I think it's normal – a person is a person. It's so hard to find a match, so why does it matter what country that person lives in?”
The very dramatic recovery that Temine is making, makes it clear how important it is to register for a stem cell donation.
She is, for sure, an advocate: “I think it's important to register. Elaine [St. Pierre, territory Manager with Canadian Blood Services] asked me to speak at the Annual Regional Conference and I did.
“I really feel in my heart people need to talk about it.”
Evelina assured us, “It doesn't hurt.”
Nowadays, usually, stem cells are taken from peripheral blood. It does involve some time, as only a small number of stem cells are released into the blood.
“It's a matter of awareness,” Temine pressed on, saying, “there's a push for organ donors with the drivers' licences. Maybe, they should be doing the same with stem cells.”
Twice as many stem cells as are needed are taken for half to be frozen cryogenically. Those from Evelina are stored specifically for Temine but, once she shows she does not need them, they could be given to someone else.
She was happy to boast, in the best possible way, “I'm good, really good, stronger – I went skiing!”
Her son, Jeff Ash, declared, “The difference in her is a 180. When she came back, it was an effort to get up the stairs; now, she's cooking up a storm. She's doing the things she normally would do.”
When it was time for Temine to receive stem cells, she had to go to a hospital in Cleveland, as there was no space for her in Toronto hospitals equipped for the procedure, although those spaces have since been increased.
She spent a hundred days in the Cleveland hospital, for there is a delicate stage after the stem cells have introduced into the recipient's system, when sterile isolation is crucial. Every effort is made to protect the very vulnerable patient's body while it learns to accept the new, foreign cells.
In many ways, Evelina is a little bewildered by the fuss made over herself, as donor. “I'm not special,” she insisted. “I just lay on a chair for 4 1/2 hours while they took the cells from my blood.”
Another, now less common, way of extracting stem cells is by a surgical procedure of removing them from the pelvic bones.
The third way is to collect them immediately after a birth from the cord blood, from where they are processed and stored.
There is more to this than even the marvellous recovery Temine is making: it is the connection between them; their shared stem cells. During the two years during which they could only wonder about each other, they each had the other in their thoughts.
Said Temine, addressing Evelina, “I could feel you; I'm connected by this invisible bond.”
Sure enough, Evelina told us too, “Every month, I would ask about her, how she was doing. They wouldn't give me her name but they told me she was still alive and doing well.”
Temine then told the story of when the Ash family knew Evelina's last name. “We were looking through all the Evelinas and what they were saying about themselves and one said the best thing she ever did was to donate her stem cells and I knew that was you!”
Mike made the comment, “We had to go for a long walk after that.”
Last Monday, New Year's Eve, during the day, we all met again at the monthly blood donors' clinic, run by Canadian Blood Services at the Best Western Inn and Conference Centre.
Elaine St. Pierre provided us with a long list of statistics, some of which are that one of every two Canadians are eligible to give blood but only one in 60 actually does. There is a process before donating, a screening of forms to fill in and information to discuss to confirm eligibility. There is a constant need for blood donors and the first criteria is that a person must be over 17 years of age and of reasonable health.
Donating blood can mean saving a life. Registering to donate stem cells can also lead to very dramatic and wonderful life stories.
The website to find time and place of blood donor clinics and to learn all about registering to be a stem cells donor is blood.ca. Look under Stem Cells for Life and follow along.
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