A gift called life

A gift called life

Bone marrow transplant recipients, donors reconnect at reunion

By Mina Radman

A bone marrow transplant from Doug Mellichamp (from left) saved Thomas Petersen’s life.

More than 13 years ago, marine biologist Doug Mellichamp was on his way to a fishing tournament when he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to stop by his old high school’s blood drive. Within minutes, Mellichamp, 45, had his ear pricked, donated blood and left.

“I was excited,” Mellichamp said. “I felt good about it.”

Unbeknownst to Mellichamp, the blood sample he donated in Charleston, S.C., would help save the life of a man 550 miles away in Deerfield Beach, Fla. His sample was a match for Thomas Petersen, who needed a bone marrow transplant. On Oct. 5, 1999, Petersen received a bone marrow transplant using Mellichamp’s donated bone marrow. The transplant successfully sent Petersen’s acute lymphoblastic leukemia into remission and saved his life.

The men met a year after the transplant and have since become close friends, even serving as the best man at each other’s weddings.

“It’s been a blessing,” Petersen said. “I always hoped we’d be good friends.”

Petersen and Mellichamp joined more than 450 other bone marrow transplant recipients, donors, family members, caregivers and friends at the Shands at UF bone marrow transplant reunion luncheon, held in May.

The luncheon occurs every other year. Cancer survivors and their families attend to celebrate life, meet others with similar experiences and connect with the nurses and doctors who aided their recovery.

A bone marrow transplant is a procedure to replace damaged or destroyed bone marrow with healthy bone marrow stem cells. Healthy bone marrow cells are typically collected through a process called apheresis, which involves the withdrawal of blood from a donor, separation of the stem cells from the blood, and re-transfusion of the remaining blood. Donors report minimal discomfort.

The Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at Shands at UF is the state’s oldest transplant program.

Jesus Santiago, 45, attended the reunion with his wife, Wilma, 36, and their daughter, Maria, 7. In January 2011, Santiago spent 45 days at Shands at UF. During that time, he spent two weeks in a coma.

“They told my wife I might die,” Santiago said. “But I survived.”

Santiago received a stem cell transplant to treat multiple myeloma and is now in remission. At the reunion, he met the doctors and nurses who cared for him while he was in the coma.

“This is the best place for me in all of the U.S.,” Wilma Santiago said. “I love Shands and the entire staff.”