Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson recently celebrated his third cancer-free year by having a barbecue at his house on Aug. 17. He invited close friends, family, some nurses from his time in the hospital and the woman who helped save his life.
Gail Gardner didn’t know Johnson when she decided to donate her stem cells – all she knew was her stem cells were being donated to a leukemia patient. Gardner became a donor because she read a story about a mother who died of cancer after three potential donors backed out of the process. “It was an emotional, impulsive decision,” she said. “I vowed that if I was a match with someone, I wouldn’t back out.”
Across the country, Johnson was given an estimation of a year to live without a stem cell transplant, and already had two donors back out on him. “I was worried,” he said. “They said I would have a few hundred matches.”
Human leukocyte antigen (HLA) matching is used to determine donor/patient matches for bone marrow transplants. Luckily for Johnson, Gardner’s cells were a near match for his – on a 10 point scale, Gardner’s cells matched Johnson’s on nine points.
After donating her cells, Gardner said she was eager to hear about the results because she felt “invested in the future of the recipient.” However, Johnson received Gardner’s contact information a year and a half after the transplant. Gardner’s contact information was misplaced in the system, and Johnson and his family finally acquired it in spring of 2013.
When the hospital released Gardner’s information, Johnson immediately sent her a postcard and letter only to have it returned and stamped as undelivered. As it turns out, Gardner had moved from her home in D.C. to Seattle in January 2013, unaware her stem cells were donated to a man just an hour south of the city.
Eventually, Cancer Care Alliance helped Johnson track down Gardner’s personal email. Gardner recalled the email “came out of the blue,” but was excited to hear about Johnson’s results.
They met for the first time in October 2013.
“What struck me was how much he loved his wife and kids and his job as mayor,” Gardner said. “He had such an enthusiasm and love for life.”It also struck Gardner how physically dissimilar they were to each other, especially because of the closeness of the HLA match.
Johnson was also struck by their differences in appearance – in his head, he imagined Gardner to be much taller than she was, “because her stem cells were so huge to me.”
Since then, Gardner and Johnson consider each other as a part of their family, and continue to get together over the holidays and for special occasions.