Bone marrow donation ties two women|[05/29/07]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It’s about 750 miles from Cincinnati to Vicksburg, but Vicky Johnston and Becki Riechman bridged the distance.

Johnston, 47, was a bone marrow donor for Riechman, 50, and the two met in person last weekend after a year of exchanging correspondence anonymously.

&#8220It was incredible,” Johnston said after her return from the ceremony, which both husbands, her Jimmy and Riechman’s Joe, attended and where both women delivered keynote addresses. &#8220There was a lot of clapping, cheering and crying,” she said.

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Johnston, an employee of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, had her donor profile in a national registry after being tested for a match with a child at her Vicksburg church in 1996.

&#8220Once you’ve given, you stay on the registry forever,” Johnston said.

After the match with Riechman was detected, Johnson donated in March 2006. Under program rules, donor and donee may correspond anonymously, but can’t talk or meet in person for a year.

Their introduction came at a survivors’ benefit at the Sharonville Convention Center in the Queen City, put on by Jewish Hospital.

While emotions have run high on paper between Johnston and Riechman, suspense ran even higher when each finally put a face with the letters they had exchanged.

It was equally overwhelming for Riechman, a Proctor & Gamble employee, and, like Johnston, a mother of two grown children.

&#8220It was very surreal,” Riechman said. &#8220I already felt close to her, so everything was complete.”

Riechman’s aunt, grandmother and, in 2000, her mother, had succumbed to chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, a disease resulting from the presence of too many white blood cells in the immune system. Though men are twice as likely as women to develop the disease, age is an overriding factor, as more than 75 percent of new diagnoses are in those 50 and older. In 2002, Riechman received the somber news.

&#8220We had been told over and over again that this cancer was not hereditary,” Riechman wrote in a letter to Johnston when the two knew each other only as &#8220blood-sisters.”

One of Riechman’s eight siblings, Russ, was found to be a match for a bone marrow transplant, a procedure involving the transfer of precursor blood cells and reproducible stem cells between donor and recipient involving a complex genetic match.

But, instead, Russ himself was diagnosed with an early form of the disease, one Riechman said he still battles today.

In December 2005, Johnston received a letter asking if she still wanted to donate. She did and a procedure involving taking marrow from Johnston’s pelvic bone took place here.

Though a drain on most donors – Johnston’s surgery kept her from work for two weeks – she chalked up her decision to donate from the pressing need.

&#8220Only about 30 percent of the people who need (marrow) are able to find it in their own family,” Johnston said.

The tissue arrived within hours at Cincinnati’s Jewish Hospital and to Dr. Duane Sigmund for implantation; Riechman asked the hospital’s priest to bless the marrow and the donor. Today, both women believe a higher power was at work for both donor and recipient.

&#8220I had to keep reminding myself that my pain was temporary. She was fighting for her life,” Johnston said, adding her blood-sister is &#8220probably the most positive, optimistic person I’ve ever known.”

She’d even give more marrow, if needed.

&#8220People ask me, ‘Would you go through the pain again?’ To save someone’s life, yeah!”

For now, Riechman is still in a recovery phase, her cancer in check, save for an occasional infection common in those surviving immune system diseases.

&#8220She is the one who keeps me alive,” Riechman said. &#8220My donor is my angel, my sister and my friend.”