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Healthy and doing well: Bone marrow transplant from Europe gives Bemidji man new lease on life

Lynn Schmidt of Bemidji monitors the drying process of oriented-strand boards at Norbord, a Solway-based plant, Wednesday morning. Schmidt started work last week after taking a year off to undergo treatments for his acute myeloid leukemia. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

At first glance, Lynn Schmidt's job appears tedious. But to the 60-year-old, being back at work symbolizes winning a battle against cancer.

His doctor has restricted him to working only four hours a day as the dryer operator at Norbord, an oriented-strand board plant in Solway, but Schmidt appreciates every minute of it. Had he not received a blood marrow transplant four months ago, going back to work may not have even been an option for him.

Schmidt was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, in 2010 after results from a physical exam he took prior to donating blood showed low levels of hemoglobin, which is the main component of red blood cells.

AML is a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow, which is the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.

"My doctor told me I had AML and then asked if I had any questions," Schmidt said. "My mind went blank."

The National Marrow Donor Program, which is based in Minneapolis, says AML is the most common type of acute leukemia. More than 11,900 new cases occur in the United States each year, mostly in older adults.

"There is a real risk of dying," Mrinal Patnaik, his doctor of hematology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, said. "One in three people are not alive after one year. It's tough, emotionally."

Schmidt was offered several options for treating his cancer.

He immediately underwent chemotherapy, which uses chemicals to kill the cancer cells in the body. This proved effective and he entered into remission.

But his doctor advised him if his leukemia returned, it would be harder to treat in the future. Schmidt said a stem cell transplant was recommended to him because it offered the best chance for a long-term remission.

Family history

A stem cell transplant, also called a bone marrow transplant, can help reestablish healthy stem cells by replacing unhealthy bone marrow with leukemia-free stem cells.

The process involves blood stem cells being drawn from one person's bone marrow and then being transplanted into someone else's body. Doctors look for a donor who matches their patient's tissue type. The closer the match, the better it is for the patient.

Schmidt is all too familiar with blood disorders and bone marrow transplants.

He said his grandfather had leukemia. His father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells, which are a type of white blood cells found in bone marrow.

His sister was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a disorder caused by poorly formed or dysfunctional blood cells, and then later diagnosed with AML.

In the mid-1980s Schmidt became a bone marrow donor to save his sister.

Last year, Schmidt was asked to donate his bone marrow - the first time since he helped his sister decades ago - but he had to decline.

"I needed a donor myself," he said.

Schmidt has also learned his oldest brother has myelodysplastic syndrome, which can sometimes lead to AML, and has been undergoing chemotherapy in order to treat it.

With most of his immediate family having some type of blood-related issue, Schmidt's options of finding a related donor were limited.

"Lynn's story is amazing," Patnaik said. "He was actually a blood marrow donor when he helped his sister who had leukemia, but he has a strong family history of pre-leukemia conditions, so we had to do an unrelated donor search."

'New birthday'

Last spring, as Schmidt awaited a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor, his daughter, Heidi, organized a marrow donor drive.

Unfortunately, the drive did not produce any matching donors for Schmidt, but to him it was still a success. It allowed more people to be entered into the blood marrow donor system, he said. This, in turn, could allow them to save their own lives or the lives of others.

"The life you save may be your own," Schmidt said. "When I donated (blood marrow) for my sister, everyone said I was a hero. I wasn't a hero. I was doing what I had to do."

Several weeks later, Schmidt received good news. Doctors found a woman from Europe who tested a positive match for Schmidt.

He refers to the day he received his transplant as his "new birthday."

Patnaik said it is not uncommon for persons of Caucasian ethnicity to receive international bone donor marrow matches.

"In Minnesota, if you go back a few hundred years, a large number of people who live here originally came from Europe," he said. "It's not uncommon to find matches there."

On average, one in every 540 members of the bone marrow registry in the U.S. will go on to donate marrow to a patient, says the National Marrow Donor Program.

However, Patnaik said, it can be difficult for minority groups, such as American Indians and blacks, to find donors. He said more needs to be done to encourage minority populations to enter their DNA into the blood marrow registry.

"We don't get enough of mixed and minority races to sign up so we can find matches," he said. "We have a world population of 7 billion and we only have 16 million people signed up to be a match. The ethnic minorities are really underrepresented. We need to extend this therapy to everyone."

'Lump in my throat'

Several weeks after receiving his bone marrow transplant, Schmidt and his wife received a letter in the mail. It was from the woman who donated her bone marrow.

"The letters said she was thinking about me and praying for me and hoping that everything goes well," he said. "I got a lump in my throat. It's very touching that somebody would do that for me."

The letter gave away no personal information, as stem cell transplant rules do not allow patients to seek out their donors for at least two years following an international unrelated donor transplant, but Schmidt said he found one clue about where the woman could be from.

"The writing at the bottom of the envelope was from France," he said.

Schmidt said his wife wrote back thanking the donor for her help. Two years from now, Schmidt hopes to get in touch with the mystery woman and said he hopes she is German.

"My ancestry is German," he said. "I was thinking somehow way back maybe we're related."

While Schmidt is currently in remission for his AML, he still faces challenges ahead.

Stem cell transplants pose many risks of complications, some potentially fatal.

The survival rate of adults with AML who receive a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor has been known to decrease each month after the transplant, research from the National Marrow Donor Program has found.

Schmidt said he has developed graft-versus-host disease, or GVH, after his transplant. This can occur when a donor's transplanted stem cells attack the body. For Schmidt, it has presented itself in the form of a skin rash.

Patnaik said he thinks Lynn has done well with his treatments.

Schmidt said he has made his peace with his life. But he also said it is important he keep a positive attitude.

"Don't go down in the dumps so far you can't get back up," he said.

There was a few times, he said, where he thought to himself, "Do I really want to go through this again?"

"But when I got done asking myself the question, I think 'What's wrong with you? You're healthy and doing well,'" Schmidt said. "You have to keep that mental attitude of 'you can beat this.' As long as you're focused on beating it, you can do it."