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Leukemia Survivor Credits Her Life to Tiny Blood Donors

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Oct. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Jennifer Jones Austin works as a lawyer and child advocate in Brooklyn, N.Y., devoting her talents to protecting at-risk children. So it may be fitting that in Austin's own hour of need, her life was saved by donations from two newborn children.

Austin survived leukemia in 2010 because she received transfusions of stem cells donated from umbilical cord blood that had been drawn shortly after the children's birth.

"I would not be here today, sharing my story, if it weren't for those children," Austin, 42, said.

She had fallen suddenly ill with a mysterious ailment in September 2009. It started out like the flu, with fatigue and fever, but after a few days, she said, things got significantly worse. "I woke up and I couldn't see," she recalled. "I was blind."

Austin was admitted to the hospital and underwent a battery of tests. The diagnosis came back quickly: She had a quick-onset form of leukemia, and her chances of survival were slim.

"As they talked about how they would treat me with chemo, I started having very shallow breaths," Austin said. "I couldn't breathe on my own."

Another set of tests revealed that the leukemia had entered her lungs and was interfering with her ability to breathe, she said.

"They thought I was going to die," Austin said. "They put me into ICU on a Friday and told my family I probably wasn't going to make it through the weekend."

Doctors placed Austin in an induced coma, put her on a respirator and attacked the cancer with aggressive chemotherapy. She remained in the coma for 10 days.

Another piece of bad news awaited Austin upon her revival: She needed a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. "They were virtually certain the cancer would return if I didn't have a bone marrow transplant," she said.

But Austin is African American, which makes it difficult to find an exact match for a bone marrow transplant. Her brother and two sisters were her best bet for a match, and they underwent testing. "They all matched each other, but not me," she recalled.

She turned next to the National Marrow Donor Program, which maintains a registry of people willing to donate marrow. But the registry contained no matches.

Her family sprang into action, urging African Americans across the country to register as marrow donors in hopes of finding Austin a match. They reached out through the media, on social networking sites such as Facebook and through the national network of African American churches.

"We added over 13,000 people to the registry within less than 13 weeks," Austin said -- the largest number of donors ever added to the registry by a single family, and the largest number of African American donors the registry ever tallied in a single year.

And yet it did Austin no good. "Through all of those efforts, we didn't find a match for me," she said.

But officials at the National Marrow Donor Program had come up with an alternative. They had identified two cord blood donations as likely matches for Austin. Cord blood is fast becoming an alternative to marrow donation for people of ethnic descent because those cells do not require as precise a match.

"I had heard of the stem cell issue, as a controversial issue," Austin said. "I was not aware of the fact that cord blood was being used as bone marrow transplant."

The transplant itself, which took place in February 2010, was easy enough, Austin said. They hooked her to an IV, and the stem cells flowed into her body. But preparing for the transplant was another story -- something Austin described as "a very grueling process."

"For your body to receive and accept the process, they have to break your body down," she said. Doctors used aggressive chemotherapy and radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells and knock out her immune system and then gave her the transplant, she said.

"Then I spent 40 days in the hospital following transplant, in solitary confinement," Austin said. "I could not leave the room."

She said her recovery was slow. "It took me until about June to be able to walk a block and a half without falling apart, and I was someone who was the epitome of good health," she said. "I ate very well, I exercised regularly, I was not an ounce obese."

But today, she feels pretty good. "The moments where I realize I still have a ways to go are when I try to run up a flight of stairs and I'm tired when I get to the top," she said. "Or when I stand in one place for 15 minutes, looking at a piece of art in a museum, my body starts growing tired. If that's the extent of the lingering effects, I think I'm good to go."

And though the nationwide effort to save Austin's life may not have benefited her directly, she said she's heard of others who have been helped.

"I've been told about six different people who said they came to the registry as a result of my situation and have been called upon to serve as a donor for another person," she said.

Given her profession and her calling, Austin sees the donations that did save her life as something approaching divine intervention.

"The irony of it all is, at the end, when I needed someone to help me, the Lord put out the cord blood of two little ones for me," she said.

More information

A companion article offers more about cord blood donations.

SOURCE: Jennifer Jones Austin, Brooklyn, N.Y.

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