October 15, 2019
They aren’t related, but are indeed linked by blood. One man is Garry Wingett of Kansas City, a husband, father, grandfather, fisherman and cancer survivor. The other is Terrell Fenner, the Texas lawyer whose bone marrow donation saved Garry’s life.
In May 2019, the men met and bonded at a surprise party that marked Garry’s new birthday.
A long journey led to that day and weekend of joy and celebration.
Unexpected blood cancer diagnosis
In April 2017, Garry visited his doctor for his routine annual physical. His bloodwork showed a low white blood cell count. Many tests, scans and consults later, he was diagnosed with a blood cancer in which the bone marrow produces abnormal blood cells.
“If the doctors hadn’t told me, I would never have known I was sick,” Garry says.
Garry – with Mary Jane, his wife of 44 years, always by his side – was referred to The University of Kansas Cancer Center. It offers one of the nation’s largest and most experienced blood and marrow transplant (BMT) and cellular therapeutics programs.
“From the very first phone call with the test results, the doctors went into such detail and were so patient with us and our many questions,” Mary Jane says. “We knew we were in the right place for Garry’s care.”
Leukemia treatment and recovery
Garry began chemotherapy, but that wasn’t going to be enough.
“A stem cell transplant is the standard treatment approach for myelodysplastic syndrome, the type of leukemia that Garry had,” says blood and marrow transplant specialist Sunil Abhyankar, MD. “He needed the procedure, and we needed to find the right donor, to help Garry establish a new, healthy blood system.”
The BMT team located a perfectly matched unknown donor in the National Marrow Donor Registry. Garry received the transplant on March 21, 2018.
The recovery process was long and, at times, grueling. But throughout, Garry continued regular exercise – walking laps throughout the unit while an inpatient – and kept a smile on his face. The positive attitude earned him recognition as a superstar on the unit. He returned home 16 days after the transplant and took the crucial 100 days posttransplant 1 at a time. His 100-day milestone brought positive news: Garry’s blood showed no evidence of cancer cells.
A continued focus on Garry’s return to health characterized the next year, with various symptoms and hospitalizations still common.
Celebrating his BMT anniversary
By the 1-year anniversary of Garry’s transplant, Mary Jane was ready to celebrate.
“It was Garry’s new 1st birthday, and we had so much and so many to be thankful for,” she says.
“The 12-month mark following the transplant is a very important milestone,” adds Dr. Abhyankar. On this emotional day, Mary Jane shared on the couple’s CaringBridge page, “One year ago today, some wonderful, selfless, caring man somewhere in the United States gave Garry a life extension. We were, are and always will be so grateful.”
That man was Terrell.
With the help of Be The Match and agreement on both sides, Garry and Terrell learned each other’s identities and exchanged emails. One conversation led to another, and soon enough, Terrell was on a plane from Fort Worth to Kansas City, invited by Mary Jane to join in Garry’s surprise.
Bonded by blood
Garry was stunned about the party and stunned to meet Terrell. The Wingetts and Terrell enjoyed getting to know each other during Terrell’s weekend visit. He shared how he became a donor.
“Be The Match had a booth at an event during my first year of law school,” he says. “They were giving away free pens for registering. Who doesn’t need an extra pen? I got swabbed and didn’t think of it again for 5 years.”
Then he got a call.
“It was surreal,” Terrell recalls. He’d been informed at the booth that only about 4% of people on the registry ever get called for a screening, and only about 4 in 1,000 are ever asked to donate. He reported to a local doctor for an evaluation, yet didn’t expect anything to come of it. But soon, he learned he was a perfect match for a patient in need.
Terrell visited a local blood center. He was hooked up to an apheresis machine, which draws blood and filters out the lifesaving cells, then returns blood and plasma to the donor’s body. Terrell’s nurse had glanced at the order and smiled. “The doctor had ordered a lot of stem cells,” Terrell says. The process took an unusually long 7 hours. Garry is a big man, and Terrell, as he puts it himself, weighs “140 pounds soaking wet.”
The process left Terrell with arm and leg cramping from calcium depletion. Per medical orders, he bought a milkshake on his way home. He felt normal the next morning.
“I was finished on March 20,” he wrote in his first message to the Wingetts, “but you were just getting started.”
Spending time with the Wingetts and their family, friends and care team gave Terrell new perspective on the impact of that spontaneous decision to register.
“Being able to see that direct, human impact was incredible and very emotional,” Terrell says. “I was just the raw materials, really, but having met Garry and his family, it certainly became so much more meaningful.”
And to those who may be considering joining the registry, Terrell says, “Do it. If you’re considering it, but hesitating, just go ahead and do it. It was a relatively small thing for me, but a big thing for Garry and his family.”
The party, meeting and spending time with Terrell and celebrating life with family, friends and Garry’s care team were “absolutely magical,” Mary Jane says.
“It was an amazing moment,” Garry adds, “and thanks to Terrell and my care team, I’m going to get to live a lot more amazing moments.”
“Throughout this experience, we knew Garry was receiving excellent care from kind, caring and loving people,” Mary Jane says. “I can’t imagine going through this journey without that feeling. The BMT team is our family now.”