‘Made a difference’: Stem cell donor meets her tiny recipient

Canadian woman’s stem cells helped cure severe immune disorder in baby Savanna
Pam Dicaire holds Savanna
Savanna Acosta, 23 months old, is hugged by her stem cell donor, Pam Dicaire during Fred Hutch's Bone Marrow Transplant Survivor Reunion on Saturday. Savanna's mom, Athena Gomez, left, holds flowers as Dicaire's daughter and husband look on. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

On stage, the spunky girl cradled flowers, a thank you present for the woman who traveled 3,500 miles just to meet her.

Then, that woman stepped on the stage. Pam Dicaire immediately glimpsed the bouquet – and the toddler headed her way.

Dicaire wept. For the first time, she could see the living results of her own gift, a stem cell donation. She had saved Savanna.

“She’s so beautiful,” Dicaire said Saturday night at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. Their meeting offered an emotional conclusion for the seventh Bone Marrow Transplant Survivor Reunion, an event hosted by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. 

“I’ve always wanted to say thank you for saving my daughter’s life,” Savanna’s mother, Athena Gomez, said before the event. “Without it, Savanna wouldn’t be here.”

In January 2014, Savanna had received Dicaire’s donated stem cells. The transplant eventually cured an immune disorder that otherwise would have killed the girl.

Under the rules of donation, their identities were kept mutually anonymous – until Saturday when, finally, they shared a hug.

Pam Dicaire and Savanna Gomez
Pam Dicaire presents a starfish necklace to Savanna Acosta, the young girl she donated her stem cells to last year. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The survivor reunion is held roughly every five years to celebrate bone marrow donors and recipients. Pioneered at Fred Hutch 40 years ago, BMT became one of cancer treatment’s largest leaps.

And that breakthrough is showing today’s researchers how to harness the immune system to cure other deadly diseases, like Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). Better known as “Bubble Boy Disease,” the disorder renders the body totally defenseless against common infections. Savanna was diagnosed with SCID in November 2013, about two months after birth.

Her only hope: a transplant. Her family was tested for possible matches. None were found.

That’s when Laurie Corner went to work at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s treatment arm.

Corner, who helps locate unrelated donors, began combing bone marrow registries around the world. About 30 potential donors emerged. But from their genetics, Corner determined some were only “suitable matches” for Savanna, meaning they matched nine out of 10 white blood cell proteins called human leukocyte antigens (HLA). A 10-out-of-10 match reduces the likelihood of serious, post-transplant complications. And some of the potential donors were not available to donate.

Savanna’s illness required a transplant as soon as possible. Corner’s team asked one of the suitable matches to donate.

“Then, all of the sudden, Pam’s (HLA) typing came across – 10 out of 10, a perfect match,” Corner said.

Near Christmas 2013, Dicaire got a call from the donor registry.

“They said it was an urgent case. I just felt compelled to do it,” Dicaire recalled. The former flight attendant is married to a pilot, Kevin. They have a 15-year-old daughter, Shaelynn.

But Dicaire’s donation intentions were fueled before Savanna was even born. She’d previously learned about an ill teenager who needed a BMT. She’d agreed to be tested but was never asked to donate for the girl, Kate. She got to know a bit about Kate before the teen died from her disease.

Dicaire’s antigen data remained in one of many donor registries. Then, Savanna fell ill.

“When I got that call, it felt like the lottery. I mean, how in the world could I be a match for someone when her own relatives aren’t? It’s so surprising to me,” Dicaire said. Some of her stem cells were harvested at a medical center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, four hours from her home.

The transplant was performed in late January 2014 at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Gomez stayed in Savanna’s hospital room every night until her April release.

On her cell phone these days, Gomez keeps photos of her then-baby daughter before the transplant. The first sign of illness was a severe form of eczema that chafed her skin red and swelled her eyes.

“She looked like she’d been dipped in scalding water,” said Dr. Suzanne Skoda-Smith, one of Savanna’s physicians, and clinical director for the Division of Immunology at Seattle Children’s. She teamed on the case with Dr. Troy Torgerson, director of the Immunology Diagnostic Lab at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

“I don’t think her donor would appreciate what a normal immune system does for someone unless she sees the before and after (of Savanna). It’s just stunning to see her now,” said Skoda-Smith, who attended the Saturday night event.  “It gladdens your heart.”

Savanna remains healthy, her family and doctors say. This summer, Skoda-Smith withdrew the last of the immune-support drugs given after BMT. The doctors are in the process of immunizing her against infections; immunities acquired by the patient before a transplant are generally lost.

Her mom describes Savanna as an outgoing girl who rarely naps and who loves car rides and playing in the dirt with her cat, Tigger.

Both Gomez and Dicaire want to stay in touch as Savanna moves into her school years and beyond.

“I’m hoping I can watch her grow from afar,” Dicaire said. “I feel connected to them.”

The first moment was their public hug. The second involved another gift from Dicaire.  

Still deeply touched by the life and death of Kate, Dicaire recounted a story the teenager liked to tell about a boy who spotted scores of starfish stranded on the beach in the wake of an outgoing tide. The boy began throwing them back into the ocean so they could breathe again. A man then warned the boy: “Son, you can’t save every starfish.” The boy hurled one last starfish into the water and replied: “I made a difference to that one.”

Dicaire wears a silver starfish necklace in honor of Kate and that tale. 

On Saturday night, she handed a silver starfish necklace to Savanna, the one girl for whom she made a difference.

BMT Reunion dinner
Fred Hutch's Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion culminated in a celebration Saturday night at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith." 

Are you interested in reprinting or republishing this story? Be our guest! We want to help connect people with the information they need. We just ask that you link back to the original article, preserve the author’s byline and refrain from making edits that alter the original context. Questions? Email us at communications@fredhutch.org

Related News

All news
Meeting someone who saved your life Bone marrow transplant recipient and reunion volunteer shares story of meeting her donor July 23, 2015
‘Got my life back’: Bone marrow transplant shows promise in curing severe Crohn’s disease New trial, old love fueling one woman's rejuvenation July 8, 2015
A lifetime later, a bone marrow donor and recipient return to Fred Hutch 25 years ago, Jennifer Monteleone donated her marrow to her 6-year-old brother, Michael July 16, 2015

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.