How I learned that it's the strangers who save you

William Harper by the waterfront in Seattle, WA
As a young man growing up on pastoral Whidbey Island, William Harper never had much reason to ponder his mortality — or to imagine a young woman in far-away Oklahoma who would give him a second chance at life. Photo courtesy of William Harper
My big sister, Erin, was weeding her garden in Coupeville, Washington, in early July 2010 when she got the phone call nobody ever sees coming. It was the perfect summer day — the sun was shining, the air was still and her big yellow dog, Max, was snoozing in some dust next to her.

That phone call was from me. I was in Nuremberg, Germany — somewhere I wasn’t even supposed to be — and I was calling her to tell her I had leukemia. 

It found me in the deserts of West Africa, 9,000 miles away from home in a place where I spent late summer nights under the brightest night sky I’d ever seen listening to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” on repeat and thinking about a girl I was pretty sure I was in love with.

I had been working on a research project for school in Senegal when I started feeling sick.

I had no reason then to know that the bruising, weight loss, paleness and fatigue had nothing to do with the 120-degree heat like I thought they did. They were instead the symptoms of my not-quite-21-year-old body turning against me — the sneak attack, the silent assassin, the infiltrator: leukemia.

It all started in a microscopic place in my bone marrow. That’s what the science says, but if you asked me, I’d say it started in the part of my back that I’ve have never really been able to scratch. We’ve always been at odds, that spot and me, and being the place in my body where my cancer began would be a hell of a power play.

You don’t feel it when you get cancer; it doesn’t tap you on the shoulder or put its hand out to for you to shake. And for as momentous of a thing as it is, it comes on with very little fanfare.

I’d never had a bruise before that told me I was going to die

Two weeks after arriving in Dakar, a long, purple and splotchy bruise stretching from my shoulder down to my elbow appeared. How strange, I thought, for extreme heat to cause something like that.

And then out in the desert, my skin turned stark and eggshell-white and I developed dark spots in my vision — leukemia cells had found their way even into my eyeballs and detached my retinas. I hemorrhaged weight and developed a high fever — my body’s confused, last-ditch effort to stop the rogue cells’ overwhelming, unchecked aggression. Unstoppable now.

William Harper flying an airplane
William Harper got his pilot's license when he was 17 — three years before being struck by leukemia. His donor's father is a pilot too. Photo courtesy of William Harper

Back in Dakar and preparing to go home, my breaths were barely enough to get me up the flight of stairs to our apartment. I was panting and light-headed halfway up, for when the air reached the alveoli in my lungs, hardly any red blood cells were there to be oxygenated. And my finger, pricked by a nurse in a side-street doctor’s office, took far too long to stop bleeding.

Millions of mutated, self-righteous white blood cells — the bloodstream bullies — were silently taking over, crowding out my platelets and red blood cells for the cruelly simple reason that they could.

The mutant cells floated into my toes, my fingertips, my cerebral spinal fluid, my lungs, and even my brain stem; no part of me could hide from them. Every single heartbeat pushed them farther and farther into my most outlying capillaries and sealed my fate tighter.

My body, outflanked and outgunned, had created a monster.

The diagnosis

After an emergency medevac flight to Nuremberg, Germany, I met up with my mother and we found ourselves in a bright-white patient room in the oncology wing of an enormous hospital. She, unlike me, knew what the word “oncology” meant and, as a hospital employee herself, she also knew that there’s only one reason why people go to the oncology unit.

She shot up in her chair when the doctor came in and extended his hand — she was nervous, pained, terrified. She leaned in toward him and took my hand.

That doctor was tall, brown-haired and Germanic, soft spoken but authoritative. He asked me what they had told me in Senegal. “Nothing,” I said. “They gave me a ton of blood but they never told me why.” This was a quirk of the old French colonial medical system still used in Senegal today whereby patients are not informed of suspected diagnoses, only confirmed ones. It must be malaria, I’d thought, or yellow fever — something that would have made sense.

The doctor seemed surprised and drew a long breath, leaning back on his little round wheeled stool, nodding almost imperceptibly. He paused for an instant, the room silent but for the steady hum of the air conditioning system.         

William Harper and his big sister, Erin Harper.
William Harper and his big sister, Erin Harper. When Erin found out she wasn't a match and would not be able to donate stem cells to Bill, she was devastated. Photo courtesy of William Harper

My big sister, 7,000 miles away, was just waking up. It was sunny outside, a good day for gardening.

“Oh,” the doctor said, leaning forward. “You have leukemia.”

The sound my mother made as her back doubled over and tears broke free from her eyes was not a cry or a whimper or a moan. It was a sound that can only come from a mother whose heart, full of love, hope and joy since the moment she first laid eyes on her son is shattering into a million pieces and she’s crumbling.

That was the worst day of my life until the day came a month later when the oncologists came in to say that my only shot at a second chance depended on the kindness and stem cells of a stranger who may or may not even exist. That’s when I got scared.

A world away

Growing up on pastoral Whidbey Island a few miles north of Seattle, I never really had a reason to give much thought to the state of Oklahoma. I knew it was known for tornadoes, a booming oil and gas industry, and politics that are as conservative as Seattle’s are liberal.

By contrast, in Seattle we have the partially naked Fremont Solstice Parade, pot shops and restaurants that will serve you a vegan, fair trade, carbon-neutral, GMO-free arugula salad on a compostable plate. Worlds apart we seemed, Oklahomans and me.

Until, that is, Oklahoma came to me in my hospital room on a snowy Seattle night in a little bag labeled “PBSC” — peripheral blood stem cells. That was the night I got a shot at killing off the monster inside me that was trying its best to kill me first.

Kathryne Taylor with William Harper in front of a waterfall
Kathryne Taylor, left, with William Harper. It was love for her brothers — the same kind that broke William's sister Erin's heart — that inspired Kathryne to join the stem cell donor registry. Photo courtesy of William Harper

Kathryne Taylor is a 31-year-old vegetarian food blogger from Oklahoma City with a degree in advertising, a spotted, mid-sized dog named Cookie and a conviction for healthy eating bordering on the religious. She has a wide smile and long, wavy brown hair, and every day I have lived since Jan. 11, 2011, has been thanks to her. Because that was the day she donated some of her stem cells to me in a tiny bag that seemed far too small for what it contained: the rest of my life.

I had to wait five years for my doctors to consider me “cured” from leukemia. What Kathryne did for me that day is far from the only help I had to reach that zenith of cancer recovery, but without it, everything else — the chemo, scary radiation sessions, 32 surgeries, and 265 blood transfusions — would have made no difference.

And that, to a guy who was only 20 years old, hadn’t even graduated from college yet or made it to the south of France, was just no way to live.

In the span of one afternoon, Kathryne gave me a second, a fighting, and a best chance. And she didn’t even know my name.

Sisters’ love

A sibling has a 25 percent chance of being a suitable stem cell donor match for a brother or sister, and Erin, who’s four years older than I am, was desperate to help make me healthy again; giving me her stem cells, she’d decided, was going to be how she’d do it. Finding out she couldn’t because she wasn’t a match was devastating to her and still, to a degree, is today. 

But Kathryne is an older sister too; she’s even the same age as Erin, and one of her two younger brothers is the same age as me. And it was her love for her brothers — the same kind that broke Erin’s heart — that inspired Kathryne to join the stem cell donor registry as soon as she turned 18.

That and an episode of the cheesy TV high school melodrama "Popular" where one of the young characters, sick with leukemia, struggles to find someone closely matched enough to be his stem cell donor.

That character’s story resonated with Kathryne. She couldn’t imagine the pain and powerlessness she’d feel if one of her brothers ever got leukemia and she wasn't a match to save them. She made a promise to herself to join the registry as soon as she turned 18, and she kept it.

“I just felt a really strange sort of calling to be on it,” she said to me once. “I just imagined being in another older sister’s existent or nonexistent shoes and really hoping that the person out there who could help my brother would help him. I just would hope that someone would do that for my brothers or for me if we were in that position.”

Six years later, my older sister became one of those sisters and I became one of those brothers. So that feeling Kathryne had when she was just 17 wasn’t a feeling at all, but a premonition, a fantastical premonition with a thousand ways to not come true that connected two seemingly random people with 2,000 miles between them because one of them needed the other to save his life.

Some might call that God’s work and some might call it fate, but I call it the very best of humanity, and I call her my hero.

A bag of hope

In September, Kathryne got a letter in the mail that said, as she somehow foresaw six years earlier, there really was someone out there who might need her. She found out she was the best donor candidate for the unnamed patient in need — me — and she got additional testing done right away to make sure she was healthy enough to donate. She was.

After several false starts because I kept getting sick with new infections, Kathryne started the stem cell donation process in early January. For five days, she went to the Oklahoma Blood Institute to get injections of Filgrastim, a medication that stimulated stem cell production in her bone marrow.

These cells then disseminated into her bloodstream. On the fifth day, a nurse placed a needle in each of her arms and connected her to an apheresis blood-filtration machine that collected the extra stem cells and returned the rest of her blood to her.

She was there for three hours. When she was finished, her family prayed over the little bag before the nurse handed it off to an airport-bound courier.

William Harper with his Seattle Cancer Care Alliance transplant care team
William Harper's Seattle Cancer Care Alliance transplant care team, from left to right: physician assistants Joan Suver and Natalie Riotto, Harper, Drs. Ann Woolfrey and Paul Carpenter. Photo courtesy of William Harper

And so on the snowy night of Jan. 11, 2011, Kathryne's stem cells, her immune system, and her whole family’s prayers arrived in my hospital room in an unceremonious little bag that had in it my only shot at a second chance. I kissed the little bag before the nurse hung it up on the IV pole, wishing the tiny cells well on their short journey into my bone marrow.

Today, Kathryne is one of the best friends I’ve ever had.  We’ve since found out that we both spent college semesters studying in France, have a passion for cooking and degrees in communication — hers in advertising, mine in journalism. Her brother drove through Nuremberg on the day I was diagnosed there, and her dad, like me, has a pilot’s license. We are kindred, both in spirit and in blood.

Strength and kindness

The thing about cancer is that you’re always too young or too healthy or have too many kids or too bright a future or too many long-term plans to deal with it. You’re starting a new job or have already registered for classes for your senior year of college, like I had.

Certainly, you tell yourself, you heard that doctor wrong. You might ask him if he’s sure or say nothing or cry or collapse or swear or go into shock like me when I sat transfixed by the round clock ticking away on the wall, unable to speak.

And then, when you can’t keep pretending you didn’t hear it anymore, the weight of it breaks over you like a wave over Atlantis and you think no, there’s just no way. This can’t be happening. I can’t do this.

But that’s just the thing. They don’t tell you this when they tell you that you might die from cancer, but you have strength in you that you never knew you had.  And that, friend, is why the odds don’t matter.

And meanwhile, a girl with a big smile way out in Oklahoma is out with her friends, laughing so hard she can’t breathe at something hilarious her friend just said. She doesn’t know it yet and neither do you, but one day soon, your lives will collide and she’ll become the stranger who saved you.

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