NEW ULM – For more than a year, Jenna Langer, 26, had looked forward to meeting the young woman whose bone marrow donation saved Langer’s life. On Nov. 10, 2012, Langer finally met her real-life hero, Maxine Renning, 20, in Minneapolis, at the annual meeting of Be The Match, the world’s largest registry of potential bone marrow donors and donated umbilical cord blood units.
Langer, a 2004 graduate of New Ulm Area Catholic Schools, talked about the meeting in an e-mail interview:
“I couldn’t help but run and embrace Maxine when I saw her. She was only 19 years old when she donated. My family and I had dreamed up these fantastic, emotional reasons why she joined the Be The Match Registry at such a young age, but really, she joined for a simple, regular reason – she just wanted to help someone. She is so unassuming, so humble about her lifesaving donation. Now her blood is my blood, her DNA, my DNA. It feels like such a familial connection that I felt like I knew her my whole life. It was overwhelming.”
The meeting capped a long journey for Langer, who was a high school senior when doctors diagnosed her with osteosarcoma, a pediatric bone cancer, in 2003. Only 17 years old at that time, Langer had just celebrated homecoming week with friends.
The bone cancer was successfully treated. But the chemotherapy and radiation used to fight the first disease contributed to a diagnosis of thyroid cancer in 2007. In 2011, Langer received yet another diagnosis – she had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which occurs when the body’s bone marrow produces poorly formed or dysfunctional blood cells.
In less than one day, she moved from Washington, D.C., where she was working her first post-college job, back home.
“It’s an odd thing, as a now 26-year-old, to have had cancer three times already,” said Langer in her e-mail. “Every three months I’m confronted with the fragility of life when I visit the Mayo Clinic to see if my cancer is still at bay. At this point, it’s like my life is in sick and healthy chapters that are so separate, such disparate experiences. Let’s hope this was the last sick chapter.
“… Cancer interrupts and cancer steals momentum… Doctors don’t know why a small minority of patients have secondary cancers like these. Regardless, I’m so grateful for the wonderful care I received at Mayo Clinic – they did what they had to do to save my life.”
MDS is often referred to as pre-leukemia, because if left alone it would have developed into acute myleoid leukemia (AML), explains Langer.
“Because I have already had so much chemotherapy and radiation, my body wouldn’t have been able to handle the more severe treatment that would have been necessary to treat AML had it progressed. There is no set time for how long it takes for MDS to ripen to AML, so that made it all the more important that I quickly receive a bone marrow transplant, the only shot at a cure for my MDS.”
Like 70 percent of patients seeking transplants, no one in Langer’s family was a suitable matching donor.
“My brother Jack was not a match… ‘He’s not even close,’ said my doctor at the time. So I turned to the National Marrow Donor Program (Be The Match), to find a stranger who would donate her marrow to me…”
Every day of the search was nerve-wracking.
“My family and I were so nervous in the time the National Marrow Donor Program was searching for a match. Not everyone finds a match, which is why we need more people to join the Registry, especially minorities, who are underrepresented on the Registry.”
Fortunately, within a couple of months, Renning, of Lincoln, R.I., was identified as an ideal donor for Langer.
“When I got the call that I had not only a match, but a perfect match, I was driving from Mankato to New Ulm on Highway 68 and immediately pulled into a driveway close by. It was a rush of relief, a rush of joy knowing that I had a shot at beating this MDS, all because of a stranger’s generosity,” said Langer.
Langer received her transplant in May 2011. She recovered from it at her mom’s house in New Ulm in 2011.
Langer kept a blog, The Redhead Report, during her entire experience.
“I wanted to keep all of my friends across the country updated, but it was also therapeutic for me to write. Several New Ulm community members followed my journey via my blog and posted wonderful words of support. Many even joined the Be the Match Registry trying to help. Since we all seem to be related at some level here in New Ulm, many were hoping they could be my match!”
“My wonderful friends and family kept my spirits high as I recovered. Many people in New Ulm also supported my caregivers, propping them up when things got hard. It takes a whole community of support,” says Langer.
Now, Langer is doing well, and has almost no lasting side effects. She recently moved to Chicago to be closer to her long-time boyfriend, and has started working again.
“I’m so grateful for all the support I received from my family, friends and my boyfriend,” she wrote. “I couldn’t have gotten through this without them. And of course, my donor. The more I learn about her, the more astounded I am with her humility, resolve and compassion. She gave me the most wonderful gift of all – a shot at a healthy life.”
Having experienced a stranger’s generosity first-hand, Langer is especially aware of the needs of others.
“I encourage everyone, especially those aged 18-44, to join the Be The Match Registry at BeTheMatch.org. You could be the one person in the world who could save someone’s life,” urges Langer.
Langer’s donor, Renning, a student at Emerson College in Boston, Mass., was just 18 years old when she joined the Be The Match Registry at a blood donor drive. People between the ages of 18 and 44 are most urgently needed because research shows that these donors provide the greatest chance for transplant success.
“I registered to be on the Be The Match Registry on a whim,” said Renning, in her own e-mail. “I went to a blood drive, to donate blood, and was ineligible, so I decided to be a potential bone marrow donor instead. I was hoping I would be matched with someone and, sure enough, six months later I was matched with a 26-year-old female with MDS.”
Donors and recipients receive very minimal information about each other before a donation. (They can learn more, and even meet, with mutual consent, much later.) Donors receive an indication of how urgent a need is, but are free to decline a donation.
When Renning was identified as a matching donor for Langer, she immediately said “yes.” She quickly went in for further testing, and soon after, made her donation.
Bone marrow regenerates, and most of the time, the necessary cells can be taken from the donor’s blood through a process called PBSC, which Renning said is “as easy as giving platelets or plasma.”
But in some cases (such as Langer’s) doctors prefer to harvest bone marrow through a surgical procedure.
“I had no problem with [Langer’s] physician’s decision to do the marrow harvest instead of the PBSC alternative,” said Renning. “I wasn’t nervous; any temporary pain was worth saving someone’s life. My friends and family supported me.
“My procedure was done in a hospital in Rhode Island. I was put under general anesthesia and bone marrow was sucked out of my pelvic bone with specialized tools. I was in pain for a couple of weeks. My bone marrow was then shipped to the then-unknown location, via a Be The Match courier. I was 100 percent better four weeks after my surgery, I had just ended school, so I had plenty of time to recover.
“I feel like I’ve known Jenna and her family all my life,” Renning said, after meeting with Langer. “They are really fun, really nice, we all clicked. I’m excited to continue a relationship with all of them. I feel blessed to have Jenna and her family in my life.”
“I would undoubtedly do this again, and anyone who meets the age and health guidelines should absolutely join because it’s such a small sacrifice to give someone life.”
Jeffrey W. Chell, M.D., chief executive officer of Be The Match, called the story of these two young women “a remarkable reminder of the power that one person has to save another’s life. It also underscores the critical need for more young, committed donors to join the Be The Match Registry to help all patients who are still searching for a match.”
Langer’s blog, the Redhead Report, can be accessed at jennaclanger.wordpress.com/.
E-mail interviews by Kremi Spengler