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Stem cell recipient and donor meet in person for first time

Feb. 6, 2020, 8:24 AM


by Tom Wilemon

Stem cell recipient Todd Adams, left, and donor Josh Ferris met in person for the first time last week at VUMC.
Stem cell recipient Todd Adams, left, and donor Josh Ferris met in person for the first time last week at VUMC. (photo by Donn Jones)

Josh Ferris was sitting in a hunting blind on Nov. 15, 2018, the first day of deer season in Michigan and the one-year anniversary of his stem cell donation, when he received an email from Todd Adams of Nashville, the recipient of his life-saving gift.

“There I was in a hunting blind texting and emailing Todd for a few hours,” he said.

After many more long-distance exchanges, the two men met in person for the first time last week and spoke at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to raise awareness about the Be The Match registry.

In 2008, Ferris had signed up on the registry during a dental appointment and since then had largely forgotten about having a cotton swab dabbed across the inside of his cheek to record his human leukocyte antigen (HLA) markers.

Nine years later, the message informing him that he matched with someone needing a transplant wound up in his junk mail. Luckily for Adams, Ferris checked his junk mail folder.

Ferris initially questioned the authenticity of the email and considered deleting it. After discussing the email with his wife, Madison, and his stepmother, Jessica Ferris, the dental hygienist who convinced him to sign up on the registry, he verified that the email was legitimate.

Donating the stem cells was a painless process that occurred as he watched movies, he said. Ferris underwent a peripheral donation, which entails having blood withdrawn from a vein in one arm, sent through an apheresis machine that takes out the stem cells and then having the blood returned through a vein in his other arm.

The stem cells were shipped from Michigan to Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, where Adams needed them to survive acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Adams had thought he had a lingering summer cold in July 2017, but when he got weaker, started experiencing shortness of breath and became noticeably pale, he reached out to his doctor.

“You look to me like someone who is acutely ill; you need to go the Vanderbilt emergency room right now,” he recalled his doctor saying.

Adams learned that he had a form of AML with a mutation caused by a kinase called FLT3. The mutation makes relapse more likely if AML is treated with only chemotherapy.

Adams had to have a stem cell transplant, but none of his three siblings was a suitable donor.

Adams had to hope that an unrelated donor would be a match.

“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “A lot of people don’t find a match. If I can relay anything about my experience it’s the importance that people be aware of the donor registry,”

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