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Denise: Hematologic Cancer Survivor

Dedicated to tomorrow's friendship

Denise Iorio was faced with two treatment options when she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), she could take medication to control symptoms, or undergo a stem cell transplant.  After taking the medication for a while, she decided it was the right time to try for a permanent cure, so in 2009, two years after her diagnosis, she chose to have a stem cell transplant. She didn’t know it at the time, but her decision started a journey across oceans and resulted in a lifetime bond.

Miles away, in a village in Germany, a young boy fighting leukemia was looking for a donor for a stem cell transplant.  The entire village organized a drive in the hopes of finding a match for him, and Carsten Cordes was one of the many villagers that donated.  Although he was not a match for the boy, two years later he was notified that someone in America had matched to him 10 out of 10, and asked if he would be interested in donating his stem cells to her.  He agreed and Denise prepared for her transplant.

“I could not believe that there was a person I had never met, in Germany, willing to help save my life.  He didn’t even know me, but would be playing a pivotal role in my getting better, and I was so grateful,” Denise said.  “Usually when you ask for help it is from someone you know, or at least know what they look like.  In this situation I didn’t know who to ask for help.”

Denise’s sister was tested first, as a related donor is preferred, but she was not a match. Therefore her name went into an International Stem Cell Registry in the hopes of finding an unrelated donor.  This is known as an allogeneic stem cell transplantandcomplications are possible.  Denise was admitted to Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven for three and a half weeks, but it turned out to be a good match. She experienced some graft-versus-host disease, which is common, but slowly started to feel better.

Her physician, Stuart Seropian, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine in Hematology at Yale Cancer Center commented, “The National Marrow Donor Program in cooperation with the international registries have made an extraordinary difference in our ability to find donors for our patients in need of transplantation.  It’s a wonderful event when we can deliver the care a patient requires through the generosity of donors such as Carsten.”

Once Denise was feeling better she started thinking more and more about her donor.  As a form of therapy, she began to write to him on special occasions that she was happy to be able to be there for, her son’s birthday, Christmas, anniversaries, etc., she wrote him to say thank you.  Although she could send him letters through the transplant program, last year was the first time they could identify themselves due to the program guidelines.  “When Denise contacted me I was surprised, but we began talking through email and over Skype. We finally decided to meet in person and my girlfriend and I flew over to stay with Denise, her husband, and son to spend time together and get to know each other more,” Carsten said.

Denise is a huge advocate for stem cell and bone marrow transplantation and also for her entire Smilow team.  During their two week stay with Denise and her family, Carsten and his girlfriend attended the support group that Denise attends at Smilow.  The group meets on the second Tuesday of every month and is for transplant recipients and their caregivers.  She encourages other transplant patients to contact their donors, if only to say thank you.  Carsten commented that everyone should become a donor, because there is no reason not to. “It is not an inconvenience or painful in any way and you never know who might benefit from it.  For me, I just knew it was the right thing to do.”

Denise, her husband and her son, plan to visit Germany and spend time with Carsten and his family.  Denise commented, “Carsten has become like another son to us.  It doesn’t always work out this way, but we are happy it did. He is no longer a stranger, he’s family.