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FAYETTEVILLE | Bone marrow donor, survivor meet for first time | News

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FAYETTEVILLE | Bone marrow donor, survivor meet for first time
News
FAYETTEVILLE | Bone marrow donor, survivor meet for first time

FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. -- We want to show you a story that spans 500 miles and features one remarkable gift.

Several years ago, a young man from Fayetteville donated bone marrow to a woman he'd never met, saving her life.

Last weekend, the donor met his recipient for the first time.

"Every day I wake up and I'm thankful," said Tiffany Weisenburger of Pittsburgh, Pa. "Some days I'm so sick, but no matter how sick I am, I'm just very thankful."

Tiffany Weisenburger is 28 years old and spends many days in the hospital, despite the bone marrow transplant that has kept her alive.

To truly know Tiffany, you also have to know Jocelyn, her precocious 7-year-old daughter.

Tiffany was 23 when she began feeling physical pain that wound up being something far worse: leukemia.

"I went, basically, into shock," said the single mom, who at that time had just met the man who is today her fiance.

Tiffany underwent chemotherapy and came out on the other side seemingly cancer-free. But a year later, an even bigger tumor showed up on her spine. This time chemo didn't work, and Tiffany was told she could only survive if she found a match for a bone marrow transplant.

"They tried to talk me out of a bone marrow transplant because they thought I didn't have a good enough chance," she said. "They told me, 'You know, we could send you home; you won't be in and out of the hospital; you'll be comfortable.' And my dad and I were like, 'No! There's no way we were going home.'"

So they went ahead, finding a match and going through months of pre-transplant tests.

Then, one week before the surgery, the match backed out.

"That was just the most devastating time of my life," Tiffany said. "They sent me home, and I thought they were sending me home to pass away."

Today Tiffany has no immune system; she's on steroids that have caused her to gain weight; and she has a disease called Graft-Versus-Host that affects her breathing. But she is still alive and still gets to be a mom, and the only reason is because she found a second match to donate bone marrow to a total stranger.

That would be Kyle Stapleton, a 25-year-old grad student at Georgia State.

When Kyle was in high school, he said his calculus teacher held a bone marrow registry drive for her niece.

"I don't even think I knew about it prior to that day," Kyle said. "It was like, 'This is great. Sign me up.'"

Three years later, then a junior at Georgia State, Kyle got the call asking him to donate to a woman in need.

"For me there was really no choice," he said. "The opportunity was there, and you just ... do it.

 

"I had to e-mail my professors and say, 'Hey, I know this sounds like a lie, but I'm not gonna be at the first day of school,'" he said.

The transplant was a success. After a two-year waiting period, Tiffany was allowed to learn the name of her hero. Once she did, she headed right to the computer to contact him. From there began a friendship of phone calls, photos, and letters -- but no visit.

Tiffany wanted to come to Atlanta but couldn't afford it, since her disposable income goes almost exclusively toward medical bills and her daughter.

 

Then, last month, she reached out to Jamie's Dream Team, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that grants wishes for those facing serious illness. Jamie's Dream Team arranged an all-expenses paid trip to Atlanta for Tiffany to meet her donor.

Founder Jamie Holmes said she was touched by Tiffany's story. "She's fighting the fight, and she's raising her daughter," she said. "Her story is just remarkable."

This past weekend, Tiffany and her family met Kyle and his family. They spent four days together, visiting everywhere from the Georgia Aquarium to The Varsity.

One night, at dinner at Mary Mac's Tea Room, Tiffany gave Kyle a gift: matching keychains featuring two puzzle pieces, one reading "DONOR" and the other "SURVIVOR."

At the visit's end, Kyle called it "one of the most meaningful things that's ever happened to me in my entire life."

And as for the survivor? She couldn't have been more thankful.

"It's one thing to send letters and thank-yous," Tiffany said. "But it's another being able just to come and tell him in person how grateful I am."

For more on Jamie's Dream Team, visit http://jamiesdreamteam.myfastsite.net/.

To learn more about the National Marrow Donor Program and join the registry, visit http://marrow.org.

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