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Saved by a stranger: Transfusion gives local man, stricken by rare blood disease, new lease on life

 

January 24, 2017

RICH LITTLE and Ethan Krafft, center, take a selfie as they wait to start the Steps for Life 5K.

Fresh from a trip where he met the man who saved his life, Rich Little wants to sign up as many donors as he possibly can to make a difference to even more people.

Little, 61, a retired local teacher, discovered he was suffering from a potentially terminal blood cancer, but a stem cell transplant cured the disease and saved his life last year.

He traveled to Boca Raton, Fla., for the annual Steps for Life 5K, held Jan. 15, which raises money for the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, to meet the Ethan Krafft, the 23-year-old Washington, D.C., donor who saved Little’s life.

Some 2½ years ago, Little collapsed while teaching in Coos Bay. He went to the hospital in Coos Bay and then to Salem, where he was diagnosed with MDS – myelodysplastic syndrome. The disease wasn’t recognized as a cancer until 2015, after the diagnosis.

Little said he had signs of it before he collapsed.

“I couldn’t catch my breath,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on – dizzy spells, fatigue.”

The diagnosis explained everything. The disease caused bone marrow failure, which led to low red blood cell and platelet counts. Red blood cells carry oxygen to other cells in the body, and his cells weren’t getting enough oxygen.

The counts were so low, Little said, that he should already have been dead. Once diagnosed, he received a blood transfusion.

“All of a sudden, I could breathe,” Little said. “It was like night and day.”

Little went back and finished the school year in Coos Bay. Then-Principal Larry Horton hired him to teach closer to home at Holley Elementary, the same school Little attended as a child. Before his stint in Coos Bay, Little ran the After School Program at Foster Elementary until grant funding for the After School Program ran out.

He continued his treatment in Salem with weekly blood transfusions, he said. As the 2014-15 school year continued, his treatment required more blood, and he started receiving transfusions twice a week. Even then, his blood cell counts were still going down.

“That’s when I read the life expectancy was not too long, less than three months,” Little said. If he did nothing at all, he had about three weeks.

Within two weeks, he was accepted at Oregon Health Sciences University and was a candidate for a stem cell donation. With his unique genetic background – Native American, Irish, Scottish and other ancestries, it was difficult to find a donor. He had no family members to donate.

That’s when his doctors turned to chemotherapy in April 2015. The chemo destroyed his marrow entirely. His doctors told him it could take two to three months before finding a donor, and he believed that’s how much time he had left.

That’s when he publicly told people about his condition, he said, and he found overwhelming support from his friends in Sweet Home, as well as former students across Oregon and Alaska.

Gift of Life and the Bone Marrow Registry, two separate but cooperating organizations, notified him that they had found three matches, including Krafft, a perfect match who had provided a DNA sample to Gift of Life as part of a community service project in a class. Krafft was attending Ohio State University.

In the transplant process, the donor receives drugs to stimulate stem cell production. Doctors draw blood containing the stem cells from the donor and immediately fly the sample cross-country to the recipient. The patient receives a transfusion, and the stem cells go to work creating new marrow.

Little received the donor stem cells in August 2015.

The stem cells go wherever they’re needed, Little explained. In his case, he had no marrow, and his body began using the stem cells to make new bone marrow. He suffered literal growing pains as the new marrow grew inside his bones.

The donor material worked quickly, and he was discharged from the hospital four weeks early, Little said, but he had to remain in Portland for three months following the procedure. Twelve to 15 people, co-workers and friends, took turns staying with him as caregivers during that period.

By October 2015, he knew he was cured.

“I can do all the things a normal person can do,” Little said. “I’m a little slower, but I was never really speedy.”

Little said he had exchanged emails with Krafft beginning in November, and they were trying to figure out why he was such a good match since they have different genetic backgrounds.

“I’ve been blessed,” Little said. “If it wasn’t for him – he did it. He made it possible.”

Once he knew it wasn’t some kind of scam, Little jumped at the chance to meet Krafft this month. Gift of Life contacted him at the beginning of the month and invited Little to its Steps for Life run. Little left Jan. 13 and returned Jan. 16.

The two met on stage during the program. Little knew what Krafft looked like from a photo. He saw him during the event but hadn’t realized it was Krafft until they were invited to the stage during the program.

When Little was called to the stage to meet Krafft, “his eyes got really big,” Little said. “I was afraid to look at him because I would choke up.”

Little gave him a hug on stage, he said. “I felt like I knew him. I feel like I’ve kind of known him all my life. I think it’s remarkable that one person can make such a difference and touch so many lives. Even though I was the one who benefited the most, it really has benefited a lot of people, and I think it’ll make a difference getting people to volunteer and get registered.”

“Volunteering to donate is a huge deal,” Little said to Krafft in a message. “This alone saved my life. My donor is the single most important person in the world, and on behalf of my past, present and future friends and on my own behalf, I say bless you and thank you.”

“This is a really incredible opportunity, to save a life,” Krafft said on stage. “We’ve spoken a couple of times, but it’s been amazing meeting. An incredible feeling. I encourage everyone to get swabbed.”

Little said he’s “still in shock” from the experience.

“Because of him, another three or four weeks and I don’t think I’d be here. Because of him, I am here and I’m able to keep going and continue to do things that I’ve done in my past. I appreciate it. Ethan, thank you very much, and you folks, thank you very much. It’s very nice to be here.”

RICH LITTLE, left, celebrates at the finish line with Ethan Krafft, who donated bone marrow that saved Little from a potentially fatal blood cancer.

Following the transplant, Little is retired and living on disability, but he’s staying busy promoting the Marrow Registry.

More than 300 people per day are diagnosed with a blood cancer, Little said. Gift of Life has a program anyone can access by clicking on the large “Get Swabbed” button on its website, giftoflife.org. He urges everyone to do it, noting the simplicity of the transplant process – the man who helped him did it for a class project.

Little said he is planning to organize a donor drive in the Sweet Home community.

“I wish I could grab everybody by the cheeks and say, ‘get swabbed,’” he said.

 
 

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