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‘He’s my sunshine:’ Lifesaving stranger is perfect match for Pam Whitmore

 

Everyday Pam Whitmore, former UIU assistant professor of education and 1965 alumna, thinks about Craig Foester. “He is the reason I see the sun every morning,” she said. “He’s my sunshine and he’s my hero.”

In 2006, Whitmore was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), or pre-leukemia. She was told by her doctor that it was a slow moving disease and she would probably never be eligible for a transplant because she was already in her 60s and the process is not considered safe for people over age 70.

For three years, Whitmore traveled to the Cancer Center in Waterloo, Iowa, to have vitamin B-12 injections and blood work done. Everything seemed to be “in check,” according to Whitmore, until October 2010 when a bone marrow biopsy revealed the disease was progressing. She began chemotherapy, receiving 14 shots every six weeks, but it had no effect on her condition.

In May 2011, Whitmore was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a type of cancer that starts inside bone marrow. Like others with AML, abnormal cells inside Whitmore’s marrow grew very quickly and replaced the healthy blood cells. Doctors prescribed a very strong chemotherapy regimen for 10 days followed by another bone marrow biopsy.

“That didn’t knock it down either, so I had to go into the hospital,” said Whitmore. “There, they gave me a much stronger dose for seven days. After that, they let me stay at the Hope Lodge (near University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City, Iowa). They didn’t want me two hours away if I started a reaction (to the chemo), or fever.”

Whitmore and her husband, Fred Koch, spent three weeks at Hope Lodge and then went back to the hospital for three more weeks where she took a stronger dose of chemotherapy drugs to kill all the bone marrow. “Platelets, red blood cells, white blood cells – all went to zero,” she said. “I was pretty sick for a while and I couldn’t eat, so I had ‘steak and lobster in a bag,’ as my doctor put it.

“I lost 50 pounds. The only thing that seemed to (stay down) was the red tomatoes and cucumbers that my husband would bring from home,” Whitmore said. “I couldn’t swallow pills because I had sores in my mouth and my throat was swollen. I couldn’t walk like they wanted me to, so I lost the strength in my legs. I lost my hair and fingernails too.

“And, I couldn’t go to RAGBRAI or Homecoming at Upper Iowa. I missed those things.”

Whitmore’s doctors informed her that they were going to attempt to locate a bone marrow donor for her. But, they warned her, she only had a 13 percent chance of finding a suitable donor, and then only a 30 percent chance that she would survive the transplant.

Despite the odds being stacked against her, the registry found a suitable donor who matched all 10 of Whitmore’s antigens and her blood type.

The perfect match was 47-year-old Craig Foester, who had been a member of the National Bone Marrow Registry for 15 years. Back home in Michigan, he began the prep work to donate stem cells to an unnamed woman. Foester, who had donated blood for a number of years, had read an article about a man who donated stem cells, and decided to take the next step. To become a donor, he had the inside of his mouth swabbed to determine if he was eligible. Twice in the last 10 years, Foester was called to donate stem cells, but for one reason or another, the transplant never took place.

A week prior to donation, Foester began a series of shots designed to build up his bone marrow stem cells. A nurse came to his house every day to administer the injections. He then traveled to Detroit, Mich., September 14, 2011, where he underwent the donation procedure. The cells were then shipped overnight to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for Whitmore’s transplant on September 15.

After the transplant from her then-anonymous donor, Whitmore had to be very careful about whom or with what she came into contact with. When she was finally released to go home, she was instructed not to dust or vacuum for six months. “I couldn’t touch anything that was alive or had been alive, such as flowers or leaves because of possible mold,” she said. “People who came to visit had to wear masks, take off their shoes, use hand sanitizer and put on rubber gloves. They also had to have had a flu shot for the season, but they could not have had the live vaccine.”

After a year of building up her immune system, Whitmore received her “baby” shots including tetanus, polio, flu, pneumonia, hepatitis C, etc. “But, I could not get the ones such as measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough or chicken pox, because they are live vaccines,” she said.

In the year following the transplant, Whitmore thought every day about her still unknown donor – who it was and how much she would like to tell this person just how much they meant to her. Whoever it was – they had given her back her life.

Upon the one-year anniversary of the transplant, Whitmore was cleared to submit her contact information to the National Bone Marrow Registry in hopes that her donor was interested in meeting her. The registry provided her with Foester’s name and email address. “I wrote him a lengthy email and 10 days later, he answered,” said Whitmore. “He said that it was a difficult note to answer and that he had started to write it five or six times.”

Whitmore wanted to thank Foester face-to-face, so she and Koch drove nine hours straight to Michigan to meet him. “I wanted to get there by Friday night, since he has the weekends off, and I didn’t want to wait another week,” she said. “There’s always a feeling that there may not be another week to do something special.”

When she saw him walk into the hotel’s bistro, all Whitmore could do was hug him. “Of course I said ‘Thank you,’ but I don’t think he heard it then,” she said. “Later in the weekend, there was a point when I looked directly at him and the ‘thank you’ just came out. He said, ‘You’re welcome,’ and I think he wiped a tear away.”

Currently 100 percent of Whitmore’s blood is Foester’s blood, and she has one X and one Y chromosome, “Just like any normal male,” she joked. “I think I inherited his like for ice cream, but I hope I didn’t receive the balding gene!”

Whitmore also joked to Foester that she used to bleed Peacock Blue, and she hopes that hasn’t changed since he is a Michigan State fan.

Whitmore is an advocate for those like her that needed a bone marrow transplant in order to survive. “If you are able, please consider becoming a donor. I recently met a woman who is still waiting for a donor. I asked her what (doctors) will do for her, and she said that she’d just have to keep having chemotherapy, and maybe they could get rid of it.

“I was lucky, and I can’t thank Craig enough for being so unselfish and thoughtful to do something like this for a complete stranger whom he might ever not meet. He is my hero. He is the man who saved my life!”

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