After years of battling leukemia, Kelsey Bishop found hope, and life, under a red cap.
In the midst of her recovery, the 29-year-old Gainesville resident was on a trip to Denmark. She learned the German man who had donated the bone marrow stem cells she needed for treatment was also vacationing nearby on the Baltic Sea coast, a short ferry ride away.
They arranged to meet; he told her he would be wearing a red cap.
As she searched for him near their agreed-upon meeting place, her mind raced back to the time when she nearly lost hope of finding a donor.
And then she spotted the cap.
“He doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak German, but we both understood why we were there,” Bishop said of donor Frank Volk. “We embraced and hugged and we both cried and it was like the weirdest thing ever. Finally meeting him and knowing that his blood is in my veins and it keeps me alive, it’s like a super weird, freaky kind of thing but our spirits recognize one another. It was a really awesome opportunity to hug his neck and thank him.”
How to help
Donate to the Be The Match registry. Learn more at www.bethematch.org
‘I had achieved something’
It was October 2011 when Bishop first was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She said she went numb after her mother spoke to the doctors, walked through the double doors in the emergency room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center and told her the news. Memories of everything else from that day quickly faded.
She received six months of aggressive chemotherapy for her cancer and was healthy for about a year and a half afterward. But she relapsed in April 2013 and couldn’t receive the same kind of treatment because it’s typically not as effective the second time around, she said.
So Bishop started a “maintenance-type” of chemo and patiently waited for a stem-cell transplant from a bone marrow donor.
In July 2013, she received a call from her case worker at Emory University Hospital telling her the good news that a donor had been found. Again, she felt numb.
“It was a lot of relief because I was kind of getting to the end of the amount of time that I had to do the maintenance-type stuff. And a person who has leukemia, without treatment, they will die very quickly,” Bishop said.
On Sept. 10, Bishop had her five-year bone marrow biopsy. She will get results in October.
“It’s basically the test that they do to determine whether you’re still cancer-free and whether or not the transplant is still working,” said Bishop. “I guess in the medical world, five years is the big year when they say you’re cured. ... I guess that’s why this year felt so special to me. It kind of felt like I had achieved something.”
The bloodwork that was done returned normal, which is a “good indication that everything is normal,” Bishop said.
Search for her donor
Receiving a bone marrow transplant was a lot different than she thought it would be. It’s actually a pretty simple process Bishop compared to a blood transfusion. There’s no anesthesia and she didn’t even have to leave her hospital room. She said it’s all done in real time, with no freezing of the cells once they come from the donor.
“They harvest the cells from the donor and immediately fly them to the patient,” Bishop said. “He was donating and they were preparing me. As soon as the donation was done, they put it on a helicopter and they flew it here and they came in my room, gave me Benadryl, hung it up, attached it to my IV and in 45 minutes it was over.”
Bishop had no idea who her donor was as the stem cells entered her body. All she knew was it was a 49-year-old man. She wanted to find out who he was.
After a year of waiting, she was allowed to put in a request to identify the donor.
She said she was warned that many donors prefer to remain anonymous and some countries don’t allow identities to be released. She remained optimistic without getting her hopes up.
“A few months later I get a certified FedEx letter delivered to my house,” Bishop said. “And there on a piece of paper is my donor’s name and his email address and it says that he would love to be contacted. So I emailed with him and we continued to email back and forth throughout the years, just getting to know each other.”
He lives in Germany and doesn’t speak English. She said they had to let their computers translate for them while they communicated.
“He’s very close in age to my father, has a daughter that’s the same age as me and he’s very kind and thoughtful,” Bishop said. “He’s just the type of person you’d imagine would do something like this.”
An effort to help others
The feeling Bishop had when she met Volk is the reason she spends each September trying to add as many people as she can to the Be The Match registry, the national marrow donor program. So far this month, she’s added more than 20. With it being five years since her transplant, her goal is 50.
Over the years since she first learned she would need a transplant, Bishop has made it her goal to add as many people as possible to the registry. Even while the search was on for her own donor, Bishop held drives at different places around town.
One was held at Chick-fil-A, others at different businesses. The biggest one came at East Hall High School, where Bishop said more than 450 people were swabbed and added to the list. She wasn’t sure if that list would ever help her, but if she was able to help someone else, she would be happy.
“Since then, I think three people who joined the match during that have actually donated, which is really awesome,” Bishop said. “They’ve gone on to save lives.”
And, thanks to the man in the red cap, that includes her own life.
“Being healthy is not something I take for granted,” Bishop said. “I feel very blessed and I don’t feel very deserving to be a survivor. There have been many, many people who have walked this journey along with us who have not survived, and sometimes it’s very hard for me to think about how undeserving I feel to be a survivor. I feel like it’s a gift to have my life.”