Blood brothers: Bagnall saved life by donating bone marrow

BY JOBY FAWCETT, Times-Shamrock Writer

Facing an uncertain future and battling the fear of mortality, Dr. Kim Murphy wanted only a chance to see his 8-year-old daughter graduate high school.

Diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in 1997, his chances of being in the audience, he admitted, weren’t great. And being a pathologist, the San Antonio, Texas, resident knew the odds were indeed against him.

Dr. Kim Murphy and Dick Bagnall visit with one another during Murphy’s trip to Northeast Pennsylvania in 1999.

Then, he received a gift from a guardian angel.

Thousands of miles away in the northern reaches of Pennsylvania, longtime Susquehanna High School football coach Dick Bagnall was donating blood, hoping to help friend Tony Aliano, who was also suffering from leukemia and desperately needed a bone marrow transplant.

Bagnall – and many others – did not match. Aliano died in 1999.

After making the donation, the veteran coach’s results went on the national registry, and through a search, he did match – almost perfectly – with someone he only knew as a 43-year-old man with a wife and daughter.

Eager to help, Bagnall endured the process of having his marrow harvested. Murphy received that marrow and had his dream come true, seeing his daughter Marybeth graduate from Texas Military Institute in 2008.

Thirteen years after his transplant, Murphy is cancer-free and is getting ready to see his daughter begin her senior year at the University of Oklahoma.

And he is a miracle of life through the power of bone marrow donation.

“We are blood brothers,” Murphy said recently from his home in Texas. “Dick has been a real champ. Every time I speak with him he tells me, ‘anything I ever need, he’s there for me.’ Knowing that he is there if I need it, is a tremendous source of security and a feeling safety.

“There is someone there who has already saved my life and someone who is willing to go to bat for me again. I am so, so appreciative.”

Dr. Kim Murphy holds Dick Bagnall’s blood prior to his transplant in April 1998.

Helping hand

After learning that his dear friend needed help to try and conquer his illness, Bagnall and many others couldn’t get in line fast enough to contribute at the blood drive for Aliano, a one-time volunteer and eventual girls basketball coach at Susquehanna.

It was an outpouring of love from a community wiling to do whatever it took to help another.

When the effort failed, Bagnall by his own admission, felt somewhat helpless.

“Tony was a close friend of mine,” he said. “A very close friend. And when he was diagnosed with leukemia, they were looking for a match and we had a blood drive in the high school gym. I did what I could but I was not a match.”

At that point, Bagnall simply thought the process had ended.

Then, the phone rang in his den.

“Out of the blue this guy called me from Philadelphia and said I could be a match for a person,” he said.

“I jumped up and said, what do I have to do?”

A year earlier, Murphy, his wife Susan and daughter were resting after a busy day of moving. They were excited about the prospects of their new home and life they were building in San Antonio.

Then he began to scratch his left side.

And he realized that his spleen had become swollen.

“If you feel it at all, then it’s abnormally enlarged and at that moment, several things that I had been suffering in the months prior had crystallized in my mind,” Murphy recalled. “Being a pathologist, I knew, most of the options for what I had were bad and leukemia was certainly in that differential.”

Late into the night and the early morning hours, Murphy went through immediate blood testing. Again, his knowledge of illnesses and a nervous technician brought everything into focus.

He had leukemia.

“It sucked,” Murphy said. “Back then I started the standard interferon and all your muscles ache and all your joints ache. A person can take it for like a month. You get real crabby and short tempered. I wasn’t throwing up or I didn’t lose my hair, but I just started snapping at my family.

“It just wasn’t good.”

Treatments that tore him down through 1997 and into 1998 were not working. He never gave in and made a plea to his oncologist to do whatever necessary so he could see that graduation ceremony that would not happen for 10 years.

He needed a transplant.

And Bagnall’s donation offered him hope.

“When I got a donor, I knew I was going to have a transplant,” Murphy said. “Fortunately, I had really good insurance. I read the national marrow program, listing the transplant centers. It was pretty easy. I went to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It was a real process.

“This does not happen in a day.”

Doing his part

Enthusiastic about potentially saving a life, Bagnall began his part of the difficult procedure in April of 1998.

There were more questions, inquiries to make sure of his mental certainty, blood work and trips to the hospital in Binghamton. More blood work and testing followed by the National Marrow Donor Program Northeast District in Philadelphia, making sure the results were pure.

“He was to the point that he absolutely had to have the transplant,” Bagnall said. “Without it he would have died. I guess I was almost a perfect match for three of the six components needed and they were the ones that counted the most.”

Finally, the harvesting took place in Syracuse, and the donation would be flown to Seattle.

After admission, and under anesthesia, surgeons drilled six holes into Bagnall’s hip bones. They drew 1,300 cc of marrow.

Then his recovery began, which included rest, and a later transfusion to replace what he had so graciously given.

“People start thinking it may hurt, but me, I got home, filled out the (consent) and sent it out that night,” Bagnall said. “There was no question I was doing this. You come out of the anesthesia, you are good to go later in the afternoon. I missed one day of school.

“I have a high tolerance for pain. Showering was tough for a couple of days, but for what little discomfort I had, heck, it’s nothing compared to what he had to go through.”

On the other side of the country, Murphy fought the physical and mental strain of his debilitating disease.

“I hit a low point,” he said. “You feel so bad for so long. You just kind of say stop the pain or let me go. It was the middle of the night and I prayed to God. I hurt so bad, and I wanted the pain to go away. And the pain went away.

“He answered my prayer.”

After watching videos and learning about everything that had to be done during the recovery process for he and his caregiver, the real agony began. The whole body radiation wiped out the marrow and his immune system.

When the nurse arrived holding a cooler with Bagnall’s marrow, it was “like Christmas,” he said.

On April 26, he had what he calls his “second birthday.”

“They hung it and it took 12 hours,” said Murphy, whose real birthday is April 21. “I’d like to say that when it was over, you just jump up and say, ‘I feel great.’

“But that’s not how it works.”

There were long days and weary nights, but he continued his fight to survive.

And soon, Murphy went home.

Lasting bond

Because of the anonymity of the donation, Bagnall remained curious and still had concern about his patient, who he did not know.

Again, there were procedures and a lot of paperwork, and the two parties agreed to be introduced more than a full year after the procedure.

The Murphys did have family ties as Sue’s sister lived in Sugarloaf, and they visited the Bagnalls, Dick and his wife Pam, in 1999 on a trip to Pennsylvania. Hugs were exchanged and tears were shed.

“Our staff and the program is pleased anytime there is a success story like this,” said Jason Gangewere, District Manager of the National Marrow Donation Program Northeast District in Philadelphia. “It’s a great message for the public, that someone can save a life and it can encourage others to make a donation and become part of the registry.”

In 2003, the Bagnalls vacationed in Texas on Murphy.

“Yeah, they really wined and dined us,” Bagnall said.

Today, all of Murphy’s marrow is Dick Bagnall’s. There is no more evidence of cancer, his blood counts are all good.

And at 57, he treasures the days he now enjoys to the fullest, continuing his work in researching diseases, aiming for cures.

“My prayers were answered,” Murphy said. “Words cannot describe how great it was to see my daughter graduate as I had hoped, and now I feel great.

“I am so grateful to Dick.”

Each and every April 26th, Bagnall calls Murphy and wishes him a happy birthday, and the two have forged a powerful relationship.

One that will last forever.

“It’s absolutely something I would do again,” Bagnall said.

“In a heartbeat.”

The Need

Every year, more than 10,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma for which a marrow or cord blood transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope of a cure.

Most patients (about 70 percent) in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. They depend on the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be The Match Registry to find an unrelated donor or cord blood unit.

Adequate financial resources are essential to timely donor searches and post-transplant care. In 2010, more than 2,000 patients received assistance, and more than $2.5 million was paid to qualifying patients through the Be The Match Foundation Patient Assistance Program.

Be The Match Registry

The NMDP operates the Be The Match Registry, the world’s largest and most diverse registry of potential marrow donors and donated cord blood units. With 9 million potential donors and nearly 145,000 available cord blood units, our growing registry is helping more patients than ever before get the transplant they need.

On average, more than 60,000 new potential donors join the Be The Match Registry each month. Nearly 723,000 new potential donors joined in 2010.

The NMDP facilitated more than 5,200 marrow, PBSC and cord blood transplants in 2010, an average of nearly 440 transplants each month.

Since it began operations in 1987, the NMDP has facilitated more than 43,000 marrow, PBSC and cord blood transplants for patients who do not have matching donors in their families.