Ontario farmer connects with stem cell donor in Germany who 'saved' his life after cancer diagnosis

·3 min read
Walt Brown was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 71. At the time, he wasn't sure he would survive it.  (Submitted by Walt Brown - image credit)
Walt Brown was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 71. At the time, he wasn't sure he would survive it. (Submitted by Walt Brown - image credit)

A few years ago, Walt Brown's future was uncertain.

The 71-year-old Leamington, Ont., farmer had just been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia — a cancer of the blood and bone marrow — following an annual doctor's checkup.

"I had no indication that there was anything wrong with me, I was going about my farming business like any other time, feeling great and so it was just shocking. It was hard to process," said Brown, who is now 74 years old.

After two months of chemotherapy, he was told he was a stem cell transplant candidate and all he needed was a match.

Before he knew it, Brown had a match and got the life-saving transplant at a Hamilton hospital in 2018.

Submitted by Walt Brown
Submitted by Walt Brown

He was told he couldn't know who his donor was until at least two years after the transplant. Last year, Brown requested to know more about the person who gave him their stem cells.

"I was quite taken back, he was a young lad from Germany and when he donated his cells he was 26 years old," he said. "It's just so remarkable that ... you have somebody that's in Europe donating cells over here and saving your life."

This past December, Brown emailed his donor and just recently, he received a response.

"His comment was that my email had made his Christmas, so I take from there that he was elated for what he could do for me and I'm elated what he did for me, saved my life, my story is a miracle," he said.

Transplants 'magical thing to do,' says oncologist

Windsor Regional Hospital oncologist and clinical lead of the hospital's stem cell transplant program, Dr. Caroline Hamm, knows Brown's case well.

"It's just magic you know, somebody just saves a life," she said through tears.

"It's just so generous just to say, 'OK, I'm going to take time out of my life and I'm just going to donate. I don't know if I'm going to help someone,' but then when you meet the people that actually saved your life, everyone gets emotional about it ... it's just a really magical thing to do."

She said the advancement in medicine that she has seen within her career has been nothing short of amazing.

WATCH | Hamm talks about the 'magic' of a transplant, progress over her career:

While she was training to become a doctor, Hamm recalls a friend of hers whose father died at 56 years old, because stem cell transplants weren't being done on people at that age.

But now, the sort of procedure Brown had is being done on people into their early 70s.

As for the matching process, Hamm explained that there's a bank with more than 25 million people who have signed up to donate from around the world. A patient can get donations from anywhere, depending on where they have a match.

Hamm said a match can typically be found within the person's family or the place where their background is from.

While Windsor Regional Hospital does some stem cell transplants now, Hamm said hopefully by the end of the year they will have a full program so they can support more people and don't have to send them outside of the region to get treatment.

While Brown has yet to actually speak to his donor, he said they've agreed to continue to keep in touch over email.

"Every day I feel now is a gift," he said. "I'm just on cloud nine."