I Saved a Stranger’s Life

Nina Huang September 16, 2009 1
Gordon and Peggy Fong

Gordon and Peggy Fong

Good things happen to good people. That’s what bone marrow donor Bien Do said of his decision to donate his stem cells to Gordon Fong. Fong, 37, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in November of 2005.

He was working in Kansas wat the time. When Fong went in for his regular check-up, the doctor found that he had an abnormal count of white blood cells. The results were surprising because he didn’t feel anything wrong. Fortunately, the doctors caught the disease early and were able to start treatment before it got worse.

AML is one of several types of leukemia that can be helped by a bone marrow transplant. It can be caused by environmental factors and since Fong is a chemical engineer, he believes he may have been exposed to chemicals at work.

Before going to the public for matches, Fong’s biological siblings had both tested but weren’t matches.

A potential donor selection process is complicated and requires six major markers, such as tissue or human leukocyte antigen typing, to match in order for a successful transplant to proceed.

Finding a single match is difficult but Fong found two potential donors. The younger match who was ultimately selected was Bien Do, 26 years-old at the time.

The National Marrow Donor Program helped pay for Do’s time and travel expenses as well as the harvesting of his stem cells in order for the transplant to be completed.

Bien Do and girlfriend, Judy Park.

Bien Do and girlfriend, Judy Park.

The doctor let Gordon Fong’s family know that he had a 95 percent chance of not surviving if he didn’t go through with the transplant. But even with the transplant from a non-related donor, the success rate was only 50 percent. Fong said that the success rate was about 75 to 25 percent for a transplant from a relative.

Fong received the bone marrow transplant in May of 2006.

He was given an extreme dose of chemotherapy. It was “just short of a lethal dose of chemotherapy,” he said.

The transplant occured within two days of the chemotherapy. Fong’s father and pastor were present on May 13 at 2 a.m. when his body received Do’s stem cells.

After the transplant, he couldn’t eat or sleep and says he threw up all the time. Fong’s father took care of him during his stay at the hospital.

Fong had to visit the hospital everyday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for six months during his recovery process. He was hooked up to an IV line during his stay in the hospital; the focus was on infection prevention and treatment of any acute graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) that he might experience.

GVHD occurs when the immune system sees the body as foreign and attacks the body. Doctors gave Fong anti-rejection drugs that suppressed his immune system functions.

“I feel a lot better than after the transplant but I still have to watch out for symptoms of relapse and GVHD,” Fong said.

Fong says couldn’t have made it without his father by his side. They became much closer after the experience.

“He was there all the time,” says Fong of his father. “He watched me go through the biopsy procedure and he’d be crying but I’d be reading a book.”

The doctor told him that he could have no issues for years but there is the possibility of the cancer resurrecting. Fong has had regular check-ups over the months but they are gradually becoming further apart, which is a good sign.

His lifestyle changed after the transplant. He no longer drinks or smokes and watches what he eats; no processed foods and mainly organic.

The Fongs got married and then moved to Philadelphia in 2007.

He says he still experiences a mild form of GVHD when his palms get a little red or he experiences some skin discoloration. The Fongs are now expecting a baby and doctors have concluded that the baby shouldn’t be affected.

Fong wants people to understand the myths and facts about bone marrow donation because it isn’t as painful as one may think.

The donor

University of Washington graduate, Bien Do, now 29, lived in Seattle for about ten years before moving to Dallas to spend time with his family during his father’s treatment. Like Fong, Do’s father was also diagnosed with AML.

In the spring of 2000, Do signed up for the bone marrow registry in college when he was an active member of UW’s Lambda Phi Epsilon. The fraternity’s national philanthropy was the bone marrow drive to help raise awareness in the Asian American community.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to get a second chance at life,” Do said of his decision to sign up. “I wanted to do my part to give them the opportunity to fight the cancer.”

When Do received the call about the match, he “didn’t think twice about it.” He remembered how badly he felt when his father was battling thyroid cancer and wanted to give back in some way to someone else.

The donation procedure consists of the donor going through six hours of dialysis while one arm is pumping and spinning the blood into the other arm, Do said.

There are no side effects but the donor must take medication and shots prior to the donation. The shot causes the donor’s bone marrow to generate more stem cells.

Coincidentally, when Do went to spend time with his family, he wondered about how Fong was doing and that was when he received an email saying that the recipient, Fong, wanted Do’s contact information.

The National Marrow Donor program prevents the donor and patient from communicating for one year. This is because the patient often needs time to recover. After mutually consenting to patient-donor communication, Fong was able to thank Do for his donation via email.

Fong’s email made Do very emotional knowing that he had some part in Fong’s recovery. Do sent the email to his own father for motivation.

Miraculously, the deed that Do did transcended into his father’s recovery.

Do wants people to know that Asian Americans are underrepresented in fighting cancer and that people should register for the bone marrow drive. He also suggests extending yourself to others, including strangers in need, because that stranger is someone’s loved one.

For more information, please visit http://www.marrow.org.

One Comment »

  1. rayman November 13, 2009 at 7:13 pm -

    thank you for the story. it is very encouraging. let’s hope many more people can be given a second chance.