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Bone marrow donor and recipient celebrate 20 years after transplant

CLEARWATER — Twenty years ago today, Lynn Kennedy was in a Seattle hospital awaiting a bone marrow transplant.

She had chronic myelogenous leukemia, and without a transplant, her doctor said she wouldn't survive.

Kennedy will celebrate Thanksgiving today with more than 20 family members and the woman who is responsible for her life: her donor.

"We're family. We both gained a sister," said Kennedy, 56, who lives in Clearwater. "I can't look at her and not realize what she did."

Without Candy Tal's generosity, Kennedy wouldn't have been able to:

See her daughter graduate from Palm Harbor University High School or the University of South Florida. Attend her daughter's wedding. Or see the birth of her grandchildren, great-nieces and great-nephew.

Her donor, Candy Tal, feels just as grateful.

"I feel like I won the lotto with her," said Tal, 54, who lives in San Jose, Calif.

• • •

It was 1987 and Kennedy was working as an insurance auditor in downtown Chicago. She had an inkling that something was wrong, but she wasn't too worried.

She was bruising easily. And her stomach was swollen. Her brother, a family practitioner suggested she get a blood workup. And her sister, Diane Shutter, a phlebotomist, drew her blood.

Not long after that, Kennedy asked her sister what happened with her test.

"Am I going to die?" she asked jokingly.

Her sister said no.

But that night her sister stopped by.

Kennedy was washing dishes.

"You're very, very sick," her sister said. "We need to get to the hospital."

Kennedy was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a blood cancer.

She was told that without a transplant, she would likely only have three years to live.

For a while, she went on oral chemotherapy. She also had interferon therapy. Interferon is a natural protein that revs up the body's immune defenses.

Her biggest worry was that her daughter might get it, too.

Her doctor said no. It's not hereditary.

• • •

Tal wanted to be a bone marrow donor because a good friend of hers had died of bone cancer.

When she found out a co-worker's son had leukemia, Tal decided to take part in the bone marrow drive

Tal wasn't a match for her co-worker's son. But her information went into the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry.

Three years and two months after Kennedy was diagnosed, she learned she had a match. It was Tal.

Kennedy wasn't sure if she wanted a transplant right away. She felt okay. But her doctor told her if she didn't do it then, she could lose her chance forever.

Kennedy left her home in Woodbridge, Ill., and checked into the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

There, she received chemotherapy and radiation in preparation for her bone marrow transplant.

"I never freaked out until the night I had to go to the hospital," Kennedy said. "I knew when I left my daughter, I might not go home."

Tal's marrow was removed under general anesthesia at Stanford Medical Center.

She had a bit of discomfort but said it was completely worth it to save someone's life.

It was the early years of the national registry, and a previous donor transported her marrow to Seattle.

In an unorthodox move, Tal asked the man to bring a card for the recipient with him. Tal wished her recipient well and said how happy she was that she could help her.

The transplant was a success and soon Kennedy's mother started corresponding with Tal.

About five months later, Kennedy and Tal spoke for the first time on the phone.

A few months later, they met face to face at a hotel in San Jose.

"It was absolutely incredible, miraculous to see this woman so full of life and energy," Tal said.

Kennedy doesn't remember what they said.

"We just cried," she said.

• • •

The women have kept in touch over the years, mostly through phone calls and e-mails.

Kennedy and Tal also have visited each other a handful of times.

Kennedy, who lived in Clearwater in the 1970s and early 1980s, returned here in 1997, when she married her current husband, Jim.

To celebrate Kennedy's 20th year cancer free, her family flew in out-of-town relatives, Tal and her son, Joshua.

When Kennedy looks back on her ordeal, it feels almost surreal.

"It's almost like it wasn't me," Kennedy said. "It would be a great movie with a happy ending. I do count my blessings for sure."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

.Fast facts

Treatments have improved for many

About 260,000 people in the United States are living with, or are in remission from, leukemia, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. This year about 4,870 people in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Twenty years ago, the average life expectancy for that type of leukemia was three and a half years, said Dr. John Wingard, director of Shands at the University of Florida Bone Marrow Transplant program. Since then, drugs have dramatically improved the outcome for many patients with the disease.

To learn more

Want to find out more about the National Marrow Donor Program? Visit www.marrow.org or call 1-800-627-7692.

Bone marrow donor and recipient celebrate 20 years after transplant 11/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 6:52pm]
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