For Stem Cell Recipient, Meeting Donor Proves Fruitful Experience

As a fruit and vegetable farmer, Douglas Young measures his life’s work by the seasons. Since receiving a stem cell transplant for his rare blood cancer, he has been able to enjoy more harvests than he once thought possible — inspiring him to seek out the stranger responsible for saving his life.

In spring 2019, Young, a 62-year-old grandfather took a break from his Woodstock, Connecticut orchards and traveled to Boston for hellos and hugs with Timothy Hahn, the New Jersey accountant whose stem cell donation put Young on the road to recovery in 2016. The pair embraced like long-lost brothers as Corey Cutler, MD, MPH – medical director of the Stem Cell Transplantation program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) – looked on, with Young joking that Hahn looked “pretty darn close” to what he expected.

Timothy Hahn (left) donated stem cells to save the life of Dana-Farber patient Doug Young (right). Donor and recipient met for the first time on April 29, 2019 at the Gift of Life Marrow Registry 5K Run & Walk in Boston.

Before this, neither man knew the other’s name. Each donor registry has its own rules for how long donors and recipients must remain anonymous, and in their case, a reunion was three years in the making. The circumstances behind their pairing, however, were a case of perfect timing.

Young’s diagnosis

In May 2016, Young developed a sore shoulder that he figured was a work-related rotator cuff injury. He was diagnosed instead with myelofibrosis, a rare blood cancer that can only be cured through a stem cell transplant. This led him to DF/BWCC, whose program is one of the world’s largest and most experienced with more than 500 transplants annually. There, a team led by Cutler and David Steensma, MD, prepped Young for the procedure while first seeking the best donor within his family.

“None of Doug’s siblings were a match, and his four sons were all “half-matches” – they wanted to be donors, but at the time they were not his best option,” says Cutler. “But Doug was very, very fortunate; a search of the unrelated donor registries identified a perfectly-matched donor.”

The donor

Hahn, then a 20-year-old college student, who had joined the Gift of Life Marrow Registry with a simple cheek swab just six weeks before. The transplant took place three months after Young’s diagnosis.

Hahn’s young age, says Cutler, made him an ideal candidate.

“Younger donors are healthier and have more pliable immune systems, so there are a lot less rejection issues,” says Cutler.

Corey Cutler, MD, MPH, medical director of the Stem Cell Transplantation program at Dana-Farber, joined Hahn and Young to celebrate their first meeting.

Hahn’s vitality proved essential when, less than six months after the transplant, Young had complications that required a second infusion of stem cells. Once again, Hahn made the required donation.

“If I had the power to help somebody else, then this is a call to serve,” Hahn said of the experience. “My sister beat bone cancer, and at the time was 10 years cancer-free. She played a big role in why I didn’t hesitate when I got the call to donate.”

A success

The second time was the charm, and Young was soon back in his orchards. Now he has a new birthday to celebrate with Hahn, and Cutler has a reason to closely check the calendar when scheduling his patient’s check-ups.

“When the season is right,” says Cutler, “Doug and his wife, Donna, will bring me a peck of apples.”