20. September 2018

Stem Cell Donation: “I’d be dead without him!“

Francesca Barone Schmitthammer is laughing. It is hard to imagine this bubbly U.S. woman in sad times. Times in which her face showed worry and concern. Unlike today! Today she beams with happiness. Her eyes rest on the two men standing next to her. Her husband Fred is one of the two men. The other men is a 34-year-old truck driver from Castrop-Rauxel: Pierre Kückelmann.  He saved Fred’s life seven years ago by donating his stem cells. Now they finally met at the site of the Stefan-Morsch-Foundation, Germany’s first donor registry – a meeting that also intended to encourage others and to give hope.

2010: Fred is very committed to help leukemia

Flashback to 2010: The Schmitthammers live in the USA. Fred is a computer specialist and in his private life, he is very committed to help leukemia and tumor patients since the son of a befriended couple was diagnosed with leukemia and an organization was searching for a donor. Unfortunately, the boy did not survive.

Fred himself feels weaker and weaker

Shortly thereafter, Fred himself feels weaker and weaker. His blood counts are very bad. In May, he gets the diagnosis: leukemia! The couple knows what that means. They have six children. The fear and the sorrow are enormous. Will there be a suitable donor? A genetic twin that has the same HLA markers and that is ready to save Fred’s life?

The perfect match in Germany

A donor is actually found, but is not available. Devastating news for the patient, but the search for that needle in the haystack is still running. Finally, the perfect match is identified in the registry of the Stefan-Morsch-Stiftung: It is Pierre Kückelmann, from Castrop-Rauxel, 9.000 km separating the two men. The 27-year-old truck driver registered as a stem cell donor in 2005: “The mother of a friend was diagnosed with leukemia and so our whole sports team went to register with the Stefan-Morsch-Foundation.”

Stem cells for a stranger in need

When Pierre receives the message that a patient needs him as a donor, it goes without saying that he will help. This man is a real Westphalian. He does not talk much but he is a man that stands by his word. On a December morning, he comes to the apheresis center at Stefan-Morsch-Stiftung to donate his stem cells for a stranger in need.

A pink pig?

Fred on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean does not know who his donor is. It was going to be like this for another two years after donation. The only thing Fred gets to know after the re-infusion of the stem cells is that his donor is a man. Pierre also does not know who his “genetic twin” is. He just sends an anonymized card along with a little pink pig. Today Fred, Francesca and Pierre are still laughing about this: The Americans did not know that pink pigs are lucky charms in Germany. They were puzzled why Fred’s donor would sent a pink pig. Even though Fred thought it was a little strange, he still kept this little present with him all the time.

2014: Surprise

Two years after donation, Fred and Pierre are finally able to exchange personal data and in 2014, Francesca manages to organize a big surprise for Fred. She secretly calls Pierre and asks him to come to the USA. During the birthday party of Fred’s grandson, Pierre shows up and leaves Fred speechless. Pierre remembers: “I was extremely nervous beforehand. I nearly ran away.” This man is a real Westphalian. He does not talk very much and does not like to be in the spotlight. When Fred and Francesca call him hero or live saver today, he turns away uncomfortably

What can I say?

Since that visit, daily mails are sent back and forth. They are friends now. No, more than that: they are blood brothers. Fred reacts very emotionally every time someone asks him about Pierre: “What can I say? Without him, I would not be here today. Without him, I would not have the chance to see my grandchildren grow up. Without him, my wife would not have her husband and my kids would not have their father. Without him I would be dead!” (dji)