PATTI BORDA MULLINS
The Frederick News-Post
MYERSVILLE, Md. (AP) — A chance match between genetic material turned international strangers into friends, one saving the other’s life.
“I am the saved life,” said Andrea Linke, of Bonn, Germany.
Linke introduced herself in the Myersville home of Linda DeLauder. DeLauder’s bone marrow was what Linke needed after she was diagnosed in 2001 with a blood cancer called chronic myelogenous leukemia.
The transplant was performed 12 years ago. Eight years later, through persistence, Linke found DeLauder and formed a friendship.
Linke, her husband and teenage daughters spent most of this week with DeLauder and her husband, Bill Steigelmann.
“One great thing is our husbands get along so well,” DeLauder said.
Outdoors enthusiasts, they hiked in Cunningham Falls State Park, visited Frederick and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and attended a baseball game. They took the girls to outlet malls, and they came home with bags full of bargains that may require an extra suitcase, their father said.
Linke looks forward to a long life now and wants to visit the Appalachian Trail sometime. DeLauder said when it is Linke’s next turn to visit, the trip should be out West.
Their story has unfolded from a simple choice that DeLauder, 65, and Linke, 49, urge other people to make: Register to be an organ donor. DeLauder and her sister decided to get on a donor registry after seeing a story in The Frederick News-Post some 15 years ago, she said.
“We both did it, never, ever expecting a call,” DeLauder said.
Nothing happened for the first few years, except that the registry confirmed DeLauder was still willing to be considered. In about July 2002, a call came that DeLauder might be a match for someone in need.
“Whoa, cool!” DeLauder recalled thinking. “My sister was so jealous.”
Further questions from the registry and a few medical tests followed.
At any point up to the last moment, the donor may back out, DeLauder said. That was never her thought, but she wants others to know the freedom people on the registry have.
Before going the transplant route, Linke had enrolled in trials of cutting-edge pharmaceuticals developed in the United States.
“That’s research done in America,” she said, commending the drugs that were developed here.
Linke is a research biologist and knew she had a difficult cancer to beat when she first heard her diagnosis.
“That was quite a devastating outcome,” Linke said. “I knew what I was going to have.”
The trial drugs and subsequent ones have an excellent performance record but did not work in her case, Linke said. Her doctor recommended a bone marrow transplant, which comes with potential severe rejection side effects involving the gut, organs and skin, Linke said.
Linke was also told her wait on the registry might last a year or more because she had a rare genetic makeup that would be difficult to match.
She laughed, recalling how that affected her family: “My parents started arguing, `Whose genetics are these?”‘
DeLauder, who grew up in Frederick County, did not know if her genetic makeup is rare, but she remarked that she and Linke have more in common than would seem natural in a random meeting. Maybe they share some ancestral connections in Europe, she wondered.
Linke could not believe a match was found in two months, with DeLauder’s DNA matching 9 out of 10 markers, she said. Linke said because she was relatively young, 9 out of 10 would do because her body might be able to adjust, but if she had been older, doctors might want 10 out of 10.
To prepare for the transplant, she had to undergo therapy that weakened her immune system for months, a time she spent in a hospital, totally separated from her young daughters.
Donor and patient wrote a note to each other and had to remain anonymous. DeLauder, then an avid weightlifter and runner, remembered she wrote something like, “I’m giving you the best marrow I have.”
“I never got this note,” said Linke, clasping DeLauder’s hand with regret and affection.
DeLauder said she thought her recipient might be “down the hall” from her hospital room when she had the surgery in 2002.
In Germany, Linke remembered seeing a person at her hospital door holding two IV bags of life-giving material and thanking Linke for “a trip to Washington.”
That gave Linke the clue to an American donor, and she did not rest for eight years to find out more about the woman. Four years ago, she reached DeLauder by telephone and then by letter.
“This is a life-changer,” Linke said.
A year later, they met in Bethesda, when Linke’s family came for a vacation. In addition to DeLauder, in the U.S., Linke has family friends and some from when she worked in New York in the 1980s.
“I’m a person who likes to be abroad,” said Linke, who also worked in England before she got sick.
“We don’t do vacations,” said DeLauder, but she and her husband broke the habit to attend Linke’s 2012 celebration of being 10 years free of cancer.
Linke has regular checkups, but her doctors think of her as a healthy person now, she said. Professionally, she expects to start working on transplant trials soon.
Her fitness regimen includes bicycling a little more than 4 miles to work and home each day, walking the bike up a bit of steep mountain at times, she said. DeLauder has given up weightlifting but has just started running again and generally stays active.
Tears well up in the women’s eyes when they think about their connection and the alternative. DeLauder said it was easy 12 years ago and easier now to be a donor, so she hopes more people will volunteer.
“I don’t know why everybody in the world doesn’t sign up,” she said.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)