Bonded by blood: Stem cell recipient and donor reunite for anniversary
A Coquitlam woman with a second chance at life still calls it a miracle that she was able to find a stem cell donor 10 years ago.
Luba Banuke, 70, was fighting a rare form of cancer, T-cell lymphoma, and was given a bleak prognosis.
"Ten years ago, I was dying and there was absolutely nothing the doctors could do for me," Banuke said.
After rounds of chemotherapy, she needed a stem cell transplant in order to live but her chances were slim because no one in her family was a match.
But little did she know, an Air Force officer from Virginia had registered to be a donor three years before she began her search. They were a match.
Steve, who does not wish to give his last name because of his job, said it was a fairly simple procedure, similar to donating blood.
"For a donor, it's not much of a very complicated or painful process at all," he said. "It cost me about four hours of my time. Lying down, they hooked me up to a machine that took out my blood out of one arm and in the other arm, they returned my blood. In that returning process, they collected the stem cells."
After the process was over, he said he held onto the pouch of stem cells and said a prayer, then it was whisked away and flown to Vancouver.
"That was the last time I saw the stem cells, but that wasn't the last time I thought about it," he said. "You think: Who was this person? Are they still alive? And what impact did I have on them?"
It turned out, the impact was enormous.
On August 10, 2009, Banuke received the stem cell transplant.
Because of Steve's donation, she got to see her two grandsons graduate.
She also had the opportunity to touch many lives. She was a lecturer at SFU and UBC and taught more than 600 teachers in a graduate program after receiving the transplant.
In 2012, Banuke felt compelled to find her donor. Through the agency, she was able to send Steve a letter.
"I'm getting goosebumps thinking about it. You get that letter and you think, ‘It worked, it's a miracle,’" Steve said.
They first met in 2013 and have continued to stay in touch through cards and emails, even going on vacation together.
They've travelled together to New York City and Miami, and Steve joined Banuke's family on a safari in Nambia.
"I was lucky, but there could be more lucky people who are suffering from that horrible disease and are waiting to find a donor," she said.
According to Ryan O'Quinn, regional director of the BC/Yukon Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada, most people in Banuke's position would not have lived more than a few years.
"The survival rate for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is not very high. Only 65 per cent will survive within a five-year timeframe. So, to be healthy and happy at 10 years is worth fireworks and worth celebrating," O'Quinn said.
Chris flew from Virginia to visit Banuke for a whirlwind couple of days to commemorate the 10-year transplant anniversary.
Despite their little time together, they wanted to make time to share their story to raise awareness.
"The procedure doesn’t have to be complicated to register and to donate, and then our miracle doesn’t have to be such a unique story," Steve said.
They're encouraging people to join the stem cell registry. Canadian Blood Services will send a swabbing kit free of charge for those interested in registering.