The bone marrow donor walked down the stairs of his buddy’s house Sunday night, early for his 70th birthday party, on his way to check out the new beer fridge.
And there she was.
His (almost) perfect match.
Ken Vice stopped short.
Oh, my god.
Then Chrissy Gordon moved in for a hug.
“We heard there was a party on,” the willowy woman from Melbourne, Australia, says.
The donor and the recipient met up again Monday at Don and Donna Hutchens’ house — where Chrissy and Dave Gordon were bunking down — ready to head to Omaha to reunite with doctors and Nebraska Medicine staff who’d collected his bone marrow nearly 20 years ago.
Ken brings a construction paper booklet, tied with blue ribbon: “My Journey to here. With so much love, From Us.”
Each page shows a young Chrissy. At dinner with Dave before her diagnosis. In the hospital before she lost her hair. Smiling with a bag of red liquid flowing into her arm. This is my bone marrow transplant taking place, Ken. That is your life-giving marrow I am receiving ...
“You kept it,” Chrissy says.
“Of course,” Ken answers.
The long-distance lifesaver met Chrissy for the first time in 2006. (Ken also brings the framed newspaper story from their ski vacation in British Columbia: “Friends for life thanks to fate.”)
The pair planned that visit. This one was a surprise.
“My kids got the wild idea they (the Gordons) should come for my birthday,” Ken says. “So they’re here.”
Almost right, says Ken’s daughter, Katie Trierweiler. Chrissy contacted the sisters in August, saying she wanted to be here to help celebrate Ken’s 70th birthday.
A long way to travel for cake and ice cream.
Not for Chrissy and Dave.
“For someone to do that for someone they’ve never heard of and don’t know, it’s just amazing,” she says Monday.
Chrissy was 28 when she found out she had leukemia and had six months to live.
Ken was 50. The plant manager at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals and the father of three daughters — Julie, Katie and Erin.
He’d been on the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry for six years, after volunteering to be tested to help a colleague in New Jersey.
He hadn’t been a match then.
But then the phone rang in March 2000, saying a young woman in Australia needed a transplant and he was a potential match.
Would he be willing to do more testing?
He and his wife, Jane, talked it over. Ken was a blood donor, but this wasn’t like giving blood. It involved risks and a hospital stay.
But it wasn’t a hard decision.
“She was kind of close to the age of our daughters,” Ken says. “And it’s something I’d want someone else to do for us.”
It turned out Ken matched Chrissy’s bone marrow on eight of 10 indicators. On July 6, 2000, two surgeons extracted a liter of marrow from his hip — poking him 200 times in the two-hour procedure.
They packed the marrow in a cooler and whisked it away on an airplane bound for Melbourne.
“Just like the movies,” Ken says.
Chrissy was waiting. Doctors had given her massive amounts of chemo and radiation, taking her immune system down to nothing.
“This is a great day,” she wrote in the construction paper book she made for her donor. “A happy time, a day of so much hope. We will always be deeply thankful to you. You know that.”
A few years later, Ken donated white blood cells when her cancer flared up.
She’s been in remission ever since.
They stay in touch on Facebook, by email.
Monday, they talk about that journey, so long ago now.
The tiny window of time to get the marrow from Omaha to Melbourne.
The nurses keeping Chrissy and Dave and their families informed.
“The nurses came in early,” Chrissy says. “They said, ‘The marrow has arrived at the airport.’”
Now it’s in a cab.
Now it’s at the hospital.
Now it’s on its way.
On the third day, Chrissy’s body accepted the stranger’s bone marrow and she started her long recovery.
She stayed in the hospital for seven weeks.
And two years later, Ken wrote a letter to the registry, saying he’d like to make contact.
He’s happy, he says. Happy he was able to donate. Happy that she lived.
“I always call her my fourth daughter,” he says.
Chrissy has a name for Ken, too.
“My life,” she says. “My life.”