When Dena Fantle accepted flowers from Ethan Lax, the 23-year-old who saved her life, cheers and tears filled the crowd. This pair met for the first time earlier this summer at the 15th annual Partners for Life Gala to benefit the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation in New York City.
A year earlier, Lax swabbed his cheek at a bone marrow donor drive while he was studying abroad in Israel. He returned to the states after his year overseas, cheek swab long forgotten.
While Lax was registering as a bone marrow donor, Fantle, 56, was hoping she wouldn’t need one. She had beaten her heavy chain amyloidosis, a condition where proteins fold abnormally, and was ready to get back to her life as a mother and a senior project manager at an international financial and professional services firm in Seattle. But after some checkups, her blood cell counts were unusually low. Dr. Pamela Becker, a specialist in blood cancers at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s patient-care arm, diagnosed this second condition as severe aplastic anemia. Initial treatments were ineffective for this rare illness, in which the bone marrow doesn’t make enough blood cells for the body. Fantle needed a stem cell transplant.
Fantle first turned to her siblings as potential donor matches, including her sister Carrie Stein who has been a research technician in the Bernstein Lab at Fred Hutch for 34 years. Fantle described her whole family, and especially her husband and sister Carrie, as an integral support system during her illness, and she was hoping that one of her family members could be her donor.
Unfortunately, none of them was a match, so she turned to an anonymous donor. She was lucky; it only took three weeks to find not one, but nearly 600 matches. Her doctors narrowed down the list to three possible donors and decided on Lax, a student at Yeshiva University in New York City, as the best match. He didn’t think twice about donating.
“For me, at least, it was an obligation,” Lax said.
Doctors told Fantle that her donor was “fully committed.” She didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, but she was thankful for this stranger’s kindness. Then, a month after her transplant, she received an anonymized letter from Lax explaining his dedication.
“He mentioned that his mom is about the same age as I am and that he was fully committed from the time they asked because if something ever happened to his mom, he’d want to make sure that somebody stepped forward for her,” Fantle said.
Lax said the procedure he went through was easy, and it was well worth his time.
“The whole process might seem intimidating or scary but my experience was very smooth,” Lax said. “It was minor discomfort to save someone else’s life.”
Lax and Fantle were one of three donor and recipient pairs invited to meet for the first time at Gift of Life’s gala. The Florida-based foundation is dedicated to finding more matches and is run by its original founder Jay Feinberg, who received a bone marrow transplant himself at Fred Hutch 20 years ago.
“I’m not really a stage kind of person,” Fantle said. “But it’s such a great organization and I thought the story of so many potential matches is compelling enough that it would be good to share at the gala.”
The pair was introduced by a couple who spoke in memory of their daughter, Ayelet Galena. A bone marrow transplant with a close match extended her life 150 days, but she had severe complications and passed away a month after her second birthday. Lax had, in fact, registered to be a donor at a drive that was held in search for a match for Galena. Seth Galena, Ayelet’s father, spoke of how his daughter lives on through people like Fantle and Lax, who give patients hope for a brighter future.
“Many of us do not know each other in this room, but we share a common bond: a fire to fight, to work, to give life a second chance,” he said during his introductory speech.
After this speech, Fantle and Lax were welcomed on stage to meet for the first time.
“I was just over the moon about it; I still am, actually,” Fantle said of that moment with Lax. “It’s hard to describe what it’s like to meet someone who saved your life. ... How do you thank someone? They’re a champion and a hero.”
After the gala, Fantle's and Lax’s families spent some time together and had the chance to meet other people who have also benefited from Gift of Life’s efforts.
“It’s like a big family — I didn’t really expect it to be quite the way it was, but I felt like there was this great big group of people who share a commonality and a common goal, which is to find a cure, but also for more people to find transplants and donors,” she said.
Fantle has been doing well since her transplant. She recently watched her son graduate from University of Washington and is hoping to return to her job soon. Fantle gives back to SCCA by being a patient adviser and council member for a number of the hospital’s committees. She also helped found a support group for people with amyloidosis in Seattle, which she still runs. She will be volunteering this weekend at Fred Hutch’s seventh Bone Marrow Transplant Survivor Reunion, an event where recipients and their loved ones — and donors — gather on the Hutch campus to celebrate.
“They work miracles here every day, and I am so blessed to have this in my backyard,” Fantle said of SCCA and Fred Hutch. “This place is a gift for the world but especially here in Seattle.”
Megan Herndon is a writing intern on the Fred Hutch news team. She is a rising senior at University of Washington where she is majoring in journalism, minoring in French and pursuing a Certificate of Sales. Reach her at email@example.com.