Lael M New Jersey Stem Cell Transplant Recipient Meets Her Match

Nearly three years post-transplant, Lael was finally able to thank her donor face-to-face during a heart-warming ceremony at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where the transplant took place.

After being diagnosed with a high-risk form of acute myeloid leukemia, doctors at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey quickly realized that Toms River resident Lael McGrath would need a stem cell transplant. Since none of Lael's family members were a match, she was registered with Be The Match. Through that National Marrow Donor Program, her ideal match was located in Germany - half a world away.

It’s a gorgeous day on the boardwalk in Bradley Beach and to look at the two smiling women, you would never guess that they had met in person for the very first time just three days before. They exhibit a strong physical and emotional connection—a bond worth life itself. “I feel as if I’m with my daughter or my niece,” Lael McGrath, 68, admits.

She owes her life to Wiebke Rudolph, a 21-year-old recent college graduate from Kassel, Germany. Wiebke donated her stem cells anonymously to Lael after the retired second-grade teacher from Toms River was diagnosed with life-threatening acute myeloid leukemia in 2016. Both had looked forward to this meeting for more than two years.

"To have a donor and patient together like this is truly remarkable,” says Vimal Patel, MD, a hematologist/oncologist in the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) New Brunswick. “This is the reason I went into my field: to see moments like this.”

An unexpected diagnosis
In August 2016, Lael was not well. She had been a runner for more than 40 years, but that summer she couldn’t run more than a block without having to stop to walk. She had fevers, night sweats and a rash on her back. “A friend was diagnosed with Lyme disease and her symptoms sounded like mine, so I made an appointment with an infectious disease specialist, and his phlebotomist took blood samples,” she recalls. Within 24 hours, the doctor called back to explain that he had sent the blood test results to a hematologist who wanted her in his office that day. “I think you have leukemia,” the hematologist told her. “And I think you need to go to Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick. Today.”

Lael’s immune system was so suppressed that she was in a life-threatening situation. Within three days she would be admitted to RWJUH, where she would spend the next seven weeks undergoing chemotherapy. Dr. Patel has been by her side since then, along with a vast team of specialists from both RWJUH and Rutgers Cancer Institute. In the hospital, Lael’s treatment involved the use of combination chemotherapy designed to get her into remission. “However, the specific mutations that we identified in her leukemia were high-risk in nature, so we knew that chemotherapy alone would not keep her in remission,” says Dr. Patel.“We needed immune therapy in the form of an allogeneic stem cell transplant.”

Searching for a donor
In a bone marrow transplant, cells can be used from your own body, known as an autologous transplant. When cells are taken from a donor, the transplant is called allogeneic. “In this procedure, the patient’s diseased marrow is replaced with a donor’s blood stem cells,” says Dr. Patel. “It allows for normal blood formation and provides a new immune system to help eliminate the leukemia. It also has the potential for a cure.” At RWJUH, bone marrow transplant coordinator Mary Kate McGrath, MSN, RN, APN, BMTCN, OCN (no relation to Lael), ran the results of Lael’s DNA testing through the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) registry. “Within two months of Lael’s diagnosis, we identified three potential matches on the registry—but Wiebke turned out to be the perfect match,” she explains.

Four thousand miles away in Germany, Wiebke was notified that she matched a patient in dire need. “Not that many people in Germany do this and certainly no one in my family or among my friends,” she says. “But when I first heard about this, I said yes, I’m going to do it. I was determined.”

Wiebke underwent peripheral blood stem cell donation, a procedure called apheresis, in which blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that collects only blood-forming cells. (The remaining blood is returned to the donor through a needle in the other arm.) The procedure took six hours. All the logistics of harvesting Wiebke’s stem cells and then transporting them to the U.S. were handled by NMDP. Meanwhile, Lael’s repeat blood transfusions were made possible by the RWJUH Blood Services team. Lael spent weeks in the hospital during the fall and winter of 2016, waiting for the transplant and being closely monitored by her healthcare team.

Finally, in December 2016, she was notified that her transplant was imminent. “On December 16th, it happened,” she recalls. “A team walked in carrying a small cooler and within an hour, the transfusion was over. All I actually knew was that the donor was female and 19 years old.” Lael did so well post-transplant that she was able to go home on New Year’s Day 2017.

Over in Germany, Wiebke was told that the transplant had gone well. Protocol and confidentiality policies don’t permit donors and patients to have direct contact with each other until at least one year has passed. In this case, the wait lasted more than two years, until test results showed that Lael’s blood cells were 100 percent “donor.” Not all donors and patients meet. But there was never any doubt for either of these two women. In fact, the pair started emailing, texting and then talking to each other on FaceTime right after being given each other’s contact information.

Recently, at a celebration hosted by RWJUH, both women held bouquets of flowers and stood happily alongside one
another. “If it weren’t for Wiebke, I don’t know what would have happened,” Lael says. With the breeze blowing off the Atlantic Ocean, these two women look knowingly at one another, smile and agree, “It was a miracle.”