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Visit unites stem cell transplant patient, donor for first time

Dec. 11, 2014, 9:13 AM

Darlena Clark hugs Jon Strong, who donated the stem cells that were transplanted into Clark to treat her blood disorder. (photo by Anne Rayner)

When Darlena Clark of Hendersonville, Tennessee, saw Jon Strong for the first time at Nashville International Airport she, “just grabbed him and hugged him and just held on.”

Strong, a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman based at Camp Pendleton, California, was the stranger from across the country who had volunteered to be a bone marrow donor, and it was his stem cells that saved Clark’s life.

Clark, 67, waited a year before learning the name of her donor — the time required under the rules of the stem cell donation program. But as soon as the deadline expired, and Strong agreed to be identified, the pair started talking, and soon Clark and her husband, Dennis, decided to fly Strong, his wife, Stephanie, and their two children to Nashville to celebrate Thanksgiving week together.

“It’s hard to imagine how grateful you could feel to someone you’ve never met,” said Clark. “You have someone’s blood and they’ve saved your life. How much more could anyone give? So, it’s an amazing experience to be in that position and to be able to meet the person.”

Clark had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), the same blood disorder that ABC News anchor Robin Roberts has been battling. In MDS some of the cells in the bone marrow become damaged and the disease can progress to a form of cancer called acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Years before Clark became a patient in the Stem Cell Transplant Clinic at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Strong, now 37, had helped lead a bone marrow donation registration drive at his naval base.

During a visit to the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Stem Cell Transplant Clinic, Madan Jagasia, MBBS, center, talks with stem cell recipient Darlena Clark, second from left, her husband, Dennis, left, stem cell donor Jon Strong, second from right, and his wife, Stephanie. (photo by Anne Rayner)

In June 2013, he received a call that his stem cells appeared to be a match for a patient in need.
“When asked, there was no question, at least in my mind, whether I was going to donate or not,” Strong said. “It was just ‘how soon do you need it done?’ That’s how I like to think the hospital corpsman field is anyway. As medical people we would always strive to do our best.”

Strong was flown to Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and for five days he stayed at a local hotel, making daily visits to the Georgetown clinic, where he received shots to stimulate his stem cells.

“After the Navy, those shots were no big deal,” said Strong, with a grin. He took Tylenol and hung out in the hotel hot tub to manage the joint pain from the shots.

After his stem cells were harvested, they were sent to VICC and on July 11, 2013, Clark received the infusion of stem cells. It was a significant date for patient and donor — transplant day for Clark and the 15th wedding anniversary for Jon and Stephanie Strong.

A year and a half later, Clark is doing well, and she wanted Strong and his family to tour the VICC Stem Cell Transplant Clinic and meet some of the medical professionals who made the transplant possible, including Madan Jagasia, MBBS, section chief of Hematology and Stem Cell Transplant and director of the Outpatient Stem Cell Transplant Unit.

“This is what we live for. This is the most rewarding experience for us because in what we do there are lots of wins and losses. So this is really rewarding for us to see a patient doing so well, to see a human save a human,” said Jagasia.

He pointed out that 70 percent of the stem cell transplants performed at Vanderbilt are done on an outpatient basis, and the program is growing every year.

More information on the donor registry is available at the National Marrow Donor Program, or visit www.BeTheMatch.org.

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