GOLDEN, Colo. — The first hint that something was not right for Aaron Crane came during one of his favorite hobbies.
Rising from a bent position in tai chi, he experienced unusual dizziness, and decided to ask his doctor about it. His doctor, seemingly concerned, referred him to a specialist.
“What he saw in the tests, I don’t know,” Crane said of his doctor. “My platelet count was high. I went through a series of tests. There’s a process called a bone marrow biopsy — which is not a particularly pleasurable process — but they corkscrew into your bone and take out a sample and they send it away and they diagnose what’s going on there.”
Crane was initially diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia, a rare blood disease in which a person’s bone marrow produces too many platelets. For some, the disease does not progress further. For others, like Crane, another diagnosis can loom later: myelofibrosis, a rare blood cancer that causes scar tissue to build up in the bone marrow.
“Myelofibrosis is not a good condition to have, because you have an anticipated lifespan of eight years. And the only cure for myelofibrosis is a bone marrow transplant,” Crane said.
Finding a donor match can be very difficult. Every three to four minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer, according to the Be the Match organization. Many will wait months or longer to find a match for a life saving donation.
“The first place that we look for a potential donor is a patient’s sibling,” explained Dr. Marc Schwartz, a hematologist at the UCHealth Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic. “On average, however, about 70% of patients do not have a fully matched sibling donor. So the next step is to look at an international registry for matched unrelated donors.”
Crane’s match came after months of searching, and from across the ocean in Poland. The match was identified in February 2020, and Crane’s doctors had prepared him for a difficult and painful transplant process. But even they couldn’t fully prepare him for the reality that he would be facing the process mostly alone in his hospital room.
“The day before he goes into the hospital — shut down. No visitors. Zero,” recalled wife Kathy Crane. “That was the hardest time of my life, and it was while he was having the hardest time of his life. And so, we talked a lot on the phone and such, but it was really sad.”
“It was very intense,” Crane said. “There were very emotional moments. I would get on the phone with my folks, with my family, with Kathy, my wife, and there were times that I was crying on the phone.”
The five-week process included rounds of chemotherapy and the introduction of the donated blood stem cells.
Crane is now in the lucky 40% to 60% of patients who see long-term survival after transplant, and today is medically in remission (he’s hesitant to call himself “cured,” he said, but has “no signs of the disease today”).
He recently connected with his donor in Poland, a 28-year-old man who is living near the Ukrainian border. He is hoping to fly him to Colorado to thank him in person.
In the meantime, Crane and his family have a mission to convince more Americans to join the bone marrow and blood stem cell transplant registry. Both he and the medical team at the UCHealth Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic want people to know that the process of donation is often far easier, and less invasive, than many assume.
“These days, for the majority of stem cell collections that we do, we do them actually from the blood and not from the bone marrow,” Schwartz said. “Being a donor — if you decide to register and you’re selected — basically involves just having your blood collected from a machine over four to six hours. But it’s not very invasive, doesn’t involve surgery or drilling into the bone marrow or anything like that, so we really encourage everybody to donate.”
You can learn more about the donation process, and join the registry, at BeTheMatch.org.