To the travelers at the train station in Cologne, Germany, they probably seemed like two old friends embracing after a long time apart. But it was actually a long-awaited meeting between strangers – a two-time cancer survivor finally seeing the bone marrow donor who saved her life.
Beth Wilson, 36, an intensive care nurse, was diagnosed 10 years ago with adenocarcinoma in her small intestine. She went through six months of chemotherapy and beat the cancer, but was then diagnosed with leukemia, one of the risks of chemo. Wilson said she believes the chemo was the likely cause.
Wilson then sought treatment at Atlanta’s Northside Hospital, where doctors suggested a bone marrow transplant as the best way to treat her leukemia. Since Wilson does not have any siblings, and her parents were only a 50% match, she was put on the donor list. Doctors warned that it could take years before a match was found – but not only did Wilson end up with two potential donors, but they were both 100% matches, which is extremely rare.
A German university student was a match
Alina Theine, 24, was one of those matches. The resident of Cologne, Germany, had registered as a stem cell donor as part of a registry drive at her university. She said she thought the chances of being matched were slim.
The organization that ran the registry drive, DKMS, matches bone marrow donors with recipients all over the world. About six months after registering, Theine was matched with Wilson through the Be the Match Registry.
Theine agreed to donate, even though doctors needed her supply directly from the marrow, the more difficult of donation options. She also agreed to be contacted by her recipient once a two-year required waiting period was up.
‘What do you say to the woman who saved your life?’
Wilson had the transplant in January 2016. After much difficulty – Wilson had to undergo several rounds of therapy before the marrow accepted her body – it was a success.
Two years later, Wilson decided to contact the donor. She got in touch with DKMS, which gave her Theine’s name and email address.
“I waited a day or two, because even after two years, what do you say to the woman who saved your life?” Wilson said.
Within those two days, Wilson said, Theine also contacted DKMS to ask whether she could contact her recipient. The two women connected through social media, both agreeing that eventually, at some point, they would meet.
‘A trip of a lifetime’
Wilson’s husband, Robert, was the one who made the meeting happen. For Beth’s birthday in October 2018, he surprised his wife with a trip to Germany to meet Theine. He had already contacted Theine and asked her to send a video telling his wife the news.
“I thought, no, there’s a language barrier she didn’t understand, (because) he didn’t buy airline tickets,” Wilson said, but when she realized the trip was real she broke down in tears.
“My husband saw I was crying and said, ‘Are those happy tears?’ and I said ‘YES!’”
DKMS arranged for the women to meet at the train station in Cologne on March 14, 2019. The emotional connection between them was immediate.
“She ran up to me and she was crying and shaking,” Wilson said. “It was so sweet.”
Wilson and her husband spent a week in the country getting to know Theine’s family and culture.
“It was incredible. It was a trip of a lifetime,” Wilson said.
Asked why someone should become a bone marrow or stem cell donor, she said, “It’s such a small thing you can do to save someone’s life.”