Giving Thanks: Stem Cell Transplant Recipient Visits Donor’s Home in Germany

Charles “Chuck” Vanada has been looking forward to Thanksgiving with his family this year, but the non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor has already experienced feelings of gratitude in 2017 more powerful – and in places more unexpected – than anything he could have imagined.

In April, Vanada and his wife, Debbie, traveled from their Boston-area home to Germany for the first communion of 9-year-old Lucy Gillmann. They had never met the young girl before, but this was still a family event; after all, Lucy’s father, Tobias, donated the stem cells that led to Chuck’s life-altering stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in 2009.

Charles “Chuck” Vanada and his stem cell donor, Tobias Gillman.
Charles “Chuck” Vanada and his stem cell donor, Tobias Gillman.

Chuck and Debbie had never traveled outside the United States before, but embraced the chance to bond with a man whose generosity they credit for making their holidays – and every day – possible. They stayed in the Gillmann family home, ate meals prepared by Tobias’ wife, Hu, and watched on as the proud parents added late-night decorations to a cake for Lucy’s celebration.

“When we touched down at the airport, and entered Tobias’ world, it was incredibly emotional for me,” says Vanada, 56. “Knowing what he was willing to do for a stranger really makes you sit back and appreciate all that you have.”

Their week together marked the final leg of a round-the-world journey encompassing thousands of miles and two decades. In 2003, in hopes of helping a colleague with blood cancer, Gillmann had added his name to a list of potential stem cell donors in his native Germany. That country’s marrow donor database has links to the international donor registry; six years later, upon learning his stem cells were needed by a cancer patient unknown to him, Gillmann went through the collection process.

That patient was Vanada, whose cancer was spreading after 10 years of semi-remission. Gillmann’s healthy cells, infused into Vanada’s bloodstream, formed healthy red and white blood cells that knocked back his disease. Donor and recipient learned each other’s identities after the 24-month waiting period set by their countries, and began six years of international correspondence by email and Facebook.

Then, this past January, Gillmann flew in to Boston’s Logan Airport to finally meet the man he calls his “stem cell brother.” Their emotional first embrace kicked off a week of sight-seeing and celebration during which Gillmann met Debbie, her and Chuck’s sons and grandson, and many other family members and friends. Gillmann, 42, even came to Dana-Farber with Chuck to meet his caregivers.

During their visit to Germany, Chuck and Debbie Vanada (center) got to meet the parents of Chuck’s stem cell donor, Tobias Gillmann.
During their visit to Germany, Chuck and Debbie Vanada (center) got to meet the parents of Chuck’s stem cell donor, Tobias Gillmann.

It was during this winter visit that Gillmann – who had traveled to the U.S. alone – invited Chuck and Debbie to Lucy’s first communion. Their visit gave him the opportunity to trade places and introduce them to his family and friends, and to share with them both his country and the letter he had saved stating that a perfect match had been found for his stem cells.

“Being able to finally show Chuck and Debbie my family, my small world, and everyday life in Germany was a great experience,” says Gillmann. “Time was short, but we tried to use it very intensely. We had an unforgettable visit, and we hope we can repeat it in a timely manner. Sometimes I wish our two families could just meet spontaneously for dinner or an outing.”

For all parties involved, it has been a perfect match in more ways than one.

Get more information on how to become a stem cell donor on the National Marrow Donor Program’s “Be The Match” registry.