BOSTON – In all honesty, Stuart Phillips had forgotten about it. Who could blame him? It had been more than 20 years.
And then one day, the phone rang. “Are you still interested in being a donor?” the voice on the other end asked. Phillips suddenly remembered. All those years ago, he had signed up for the Anthony Nolan donor register in the United Kingdom. He had offered to become a match for someone in need of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. And he’d forgotten, because it had been so long with no word.
Finally, two decades later, he was going to get the chance to help out a complete stranger.
“It’s been quite interesting to wonder what it would be like, and who you’d be helping, Phillips said at his home in Surrey, England. “It could be anyone from a newborn to someone at the end of their life. That was quite exciting.”
Phillips, a husband and father of two, went to London to donate his stem cells in November 2012. The only information provided about the recipient was that it was urgently needed for a woman in America. In this case, his stem cells would be used to bolster the cells in her immune system.
The process took six hours. The bag of his cells was whisked away, and that was it.
‘It scared me’
“That was quite a hard time,” Phillips said. “I’m not one of these people who can just do something like that and not know what the outcome is.”
It turned out that his match is Celia Hutchinson. She’s 71 years old, and lives in Massachusetts. In 2000, she found a lump in her neck. That’s when doctors diagnosed her with CLL — chronic lymphocytic leukemia. At the time, she was in her mid-50s.
“It scared me,” Hutchinson said. “My parents died of cancer, my oldest brother has cancer, and after I was diagnosed, I found out my younger brother had cancer. It was very scary for me, but then I had to say, ‘hey, it’s going to be whatever it’s going to be.'”
Hutchinson and her husband Walter, affectionately known as “Hutch,” have three kids, seven grandkids, and two great-grandsons. For Hutchinson, her family was the motivation she needed to fight the cancer by whatever means necessary.
For 12 years, she endured repeated chemotherapy treatments, but the cancer was forming mutations. Her doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston recommended a more extreme option — a stem cell transplant.
“I wanted to live. I wanted life,” Hutchinson said. “I felt I was just too young not to try it and see what would happen so I could go on and live my life, enjoy my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. And I’m just a great believer that if it can be done, you go for it.”
In November 2012, the American equivalent of the UK’s Anthony Nolan register, called Be the Match, notified Hutchinson she had a donor. A complete stranger — who would turn out to be Phillips — was going to donate stem cells for her.
The transplant operation was a success, though not without complications. Hutchinson pulled through, but was left wondering about her donor.
“We didn’t know where he came from or anything,” Hutchinson said. “We thought we could at least meet him within the year, but it didn’t work that way because it was in the UK.”
The donor privacy laws are different for every country. For the required two years, Phillips waited anxiously for any word on Hutchinson. He only received bits and pieces of information over that time.
Then one day, near the end of 2014, a letter came.
“I got a letter out of the blue to say ‘your recipient wants to make contact with you, are you happy to share your details?'” Phillips recalled. He sent his details, and he and Hutchinson spoke on the phone right before Christmas this past year.
“Oh it was just absolutely fantastic. I can’t even express it,” Hutchinson said. “It was just the most exciting thing in my whole life, to know that the donor has saved my life.”
Nearly every day since then, Hutchinson and Phillips have exchanged emails. But the ultimate goal was always to meet in person. During the filming of this episode of CNN global health show “Vital Signs,” Phillips suggested he come to America to surprise Hutchinson.
On a sunny day in Boston, after a check-up at Massachusetts General, Hutchinson sat with her husband in the hospital’s healing garden, reflecting on their journey. They had recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
And walking up behind them, came Phillips.
It was an emotional, heartfelt moment years in the making. And it all started with a match that turned strangers into friends, then family.
“She’s part of our family,” Phillips said. “And I think we are of hers as well. We don’t have the biggest family anyway, so it’s nice to have more people you can count as part of that.”
“I was so fortunate he was picked for me,” Hutchinson said. “I mean, I have his DNA, I have his blood. We’re like brother and sister really, when you think about it. It was just remarkable.
“There should be so many more out there that do this, that can do what he did. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”