A Dream Come True
ATLANTA—On Feb. 23, Kyle Stapleton, an M.B.A. student and graduate assistant for the Rialto Center for the Arts, finally met the woman whose life he saved almost five years ago when he donated bone marrow to her.
Rules designed to protect both the donor and the patient prevented the 24-year-old and Tiffany Weisenburger, a Pennsylvania woman battling acute myeloid leukemia, from knowing anything about each other for two years after the transplant. Through e-mails and phone calls, Stapleton would eventually learn that Weisenburger had gone through several rounds of chemotherapy treatment and a relapse before she had the bone marrow transplant in 2007.
“It has humbled me infinitely,” Stapleton said. “In getting to know Tiffany and her family and hearing those experiences of what a second chance at life feels like for someone has taught me to try to take things for granted less and to be a generally more positive and helpful person, because people have survived and thrived in so much more intense circumstances than I’ve ever had to go through.”
Determined to meet the man that was wiling to help a complete stranger, Weisenburger made a wish this month to Jamie’s Dream Team, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that aims to lift the spirits of individuals suffering from serious medical conditions, injuries or trauma.
“I felt that it was an awesome request,” said Jamie Holmes, who founded Jamie’s Dream Team when she was 18 after being born with a rare disorder known as V.A.T.E.R. Syndrome. “She didn’t ask for a trip or to meet a celebrity, but to see the man that saved her life and gave her a second chance at being a mom.”
Holmes gave Weisenburger plane tickets to Georgia, hotel accommodations at a Holiday Inn, admission to the World of Coca-Cola, reservations to American Girl Atlanta and $500 in gift cards.
Stapleton also took Weisenburger and her 7-year-old daughter to meet his family, as well as to the Georgia Aquarium, a Chick-fil-A Dwarf House in Fayetteville, the Varsity and Mary Mac’s Tea Room.
“Meeting Kyle was a dream come true,” Weisenburger said. “I’d tried so hard the past two years and couldn’t due to medical and financial setbacks. I really wanted to thank Kyle in person, and it meant so much to be able to do so.”
Stapleton said since most people never get called on as a match, he didn’t think much about when he had his cheek swabbed for DNA so he could be added to the potential donor database. He was a senior in high school in 2005 and his favorite calculus teacher was holding a bone marrow donation drive for a young niece who also had AML Leukemia.
“To me, I was getting out of class for a little while and all my friends were in there kind of hanging out,” he recalled. “But when I got in there and checked out the information it seemed the same as giving blood and I was into that so I signed up.”
By the time Stapleton was called as a bone donor match two years later, he was a GSU marketing major training to be an Incept new student orientation leader. He attended GSU on a Berner Scholarship, a merit-based award for students from rural Georgia, and took Honors classes.
“It was kind of part of that buzz of all the cool new things that were happening in my life,” he said.
Stapleton went through three months of testing at Emory University Hospital before he could go under anesthesia to have his bone marrow extracted. He had the surgery, which involved a needle being inserted into his pelvic bone, in 2007 on the first day of classes of his junior year.
“It wasn’t a painful experience, and they said they took a lot of bone marrow,” he said. “I was a little stiff, but within 10 to 14 days it was virtually like nothing ever happened.”
Weisenburger’s health is still a battle, however. She had an operation just 10 days before her flight to Atlanta to remove a mass.
Stapleton hopes other students will see his story and volunteer to help The National Marrow Donor Program with either their time or bone marrow donation. Every year the program helps nearly 10,000 patients in the U.S. suffering from life-threatening blood diseases who need an unrelated donor for a bone marrow transplant.
“I wouldn’t be afraid of the procedure because it’s really not a big deal. The benefits have far outweighed the four days of discomfort from the procedure,” he said. “Everything that has come of it has been such an amazing gift in my life.”