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First in Idaho: St. Luke’s patient receives bone marrow stem cells from unrelated donor

Melody Hawley celebrates 100 days post-stem cell transplant by ringing the milestone bell in St. Luke's Boise oncology unit.
By Anita Kissee, News and Community
April 5, 2019

One person can save a life. That’s what happened for Melody Hawley, who recently received a stem cell transplant to treat an aggressive form of leukemia.

“The best part of my story is the fact that one person made such a difference to a complete stranger,” Hawley said, during a celebration marking the 100-day milestone since her allogeneic stem cell transplant at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute (MSTI) in Boise.

Hawley, a Nampa resident, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in December of 2017. Her treatment seemed to be going well, but six months in, the cancer suddenly escalated.

Dr. Travis Williams, Hawley’s oncologist and hematologist at St. Luke’s MSTI, said a stem cell transplant was Hawley’s best option.

“This type of leukemia is an aggressive leukemia. Without intense chemotherapy to put it into remission, and then an allogeneic stem cell transplant to keep it in remission, it would relapse in a matter of weeks to months,” Dr. Williams said.

“With doing a stem cell transplant, the purpose is to keep it in remission forever. This is the only potential curative option. All other options are just buying time.”

Hawley didn’t have a family donor match, so doctors used the Be the Match registry, a national marrow donor program, to find an unrelated donor.

“They found one. She was a 10/10 match, but there was only one,” Hawley said.

Relief in finding a one-in-17-million match doesn’t equal a match, however. The matched donor must be located, checked for good health and most importantly, must be willing to donate stem cells.

Hawley’s match stepped up immediately.

“It’s just incredible one person made such a difference,” Hawley said. “She went down and did what she needed to do to be able to save a life.

“Whenever she registered in her life, had she done anything different, had she walked by that table or that opportunity to register, I might not be here right now.

In an allogeneic transplant, healthy cells from an unrelated donor are transplanted to a patient receiving treatment. Hawley's been leukemia free since her transplant in December.

On Dec. 12, 2018, Hawley received an allogeneic transplant, a stem cell transplant where a healthy donor’s bone marrow or blood cells are given to a patient who’s received high-dose chemotherapy or radiation.

It was the first time in Idaho that doctors used stem cells from someone completely unrelated in a procedure typically only been offered at university hospitals due to the complexities involved. Hawley had planned to temporarily move to Salt Lake City or Seattle for the procedure.

“We found out I would be able to stay in Boise at St. Luke’s, and now they were able to do these transplants from unrelated (donors) and Be the Match, and that in itself was a blessing, because not having to move to Seattle for three months and figure out how to do that was perfect timing,” Hawley said.

Also in 2018, St. Luke’s MSTI became the first site in Idaho to be designated as a National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) Apheresis Center, allowing blood and marrow donors to have their stem cells harvested in Boise, rather than having to travel out of state.

Hawley encourages everyone to sign up for the Be the Match registry.

“You may never get a call,” she said, “or you might get that call that saves someone’s life.

“I’m that life that someone saved because they registered and donated.”  

One-hundred days after her transplant, Hawley is leukemia free.

“I have a few more years before they say I’m actually cured, but I couldn’t be more grateful,” she said. She plans to thank her donor directly when she learns who she is in a year.

“I don’t know how you say thank you to someone that’s saved your life, but I’m going to try.”

About The Author

Anita Kisseé was the Treasure Valley public relations manager for St. Luke’s Health System.