When her doctor called her one January evening, Sarah Lister knew it meant nothing good. Unfortunately, she was right. She had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
“The first cry was not the call with the diagnosis,” Sarah said. “It wasn’t even when they got in there to do the bone marrow biopsy, which does hurt. [I didn’t cry] until my doctors came in and said I wouldn’t be able to see my children during my treatment.”
For more than four months, she remained an inpatient at the UK Markey Cancer Center as she waited for a bone marrow transplant. With no family members as a match, her doctors turned to national bone marrow registries.
As the months drew on, Sarah’s optimism began to waver.
Finally, in July 2016 – the day after her 46th birthday – a donor was found, and Sarah underwent a successful bone marrow transplant.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Who is it, and how do I send a thank you?’” said Sarah, former director of the Lexington Ronald McDonald House. “One of the things I fantasized about that helped get me through my recovery was, ‘One day we are going to have the biggest party!’”
One year after the transplant, the bone marrow registry gave both recipient and donor the option of exchanging contact information. Both said yes, and Sarah found out who had saved her life. His name was Thaddeus Kunkel, and he had been a junior neuroscience major at Michigan State University when he joined the registry.
A few months after registering, Thad got a call requesting a preliminary blood test for a potential match.
He was, indeed, a match.
Thad needed to give a solid commitment because if he backed out at the last minute, Sarah could have died from the prep process. Even though he was overwhelmed, Thad said yes.
After the donation Thad received an anonymous thank-you letter from Sarah, and he knew he wanted to learn more about the person he had helped.
In March 2018, Sarah gathered her family into her dining room for an important phone call. She called Thad, who by then was 23 and a medical student at the University of Michigan.
“One of the first things we talked about when I came home from my bone marrow transplant was how special it was that there was somebody in the world who was willing to make that sacrifice.” - Sarah Lister
Their conversation ranged from the silly – with Sarah asking Thad if he liked Mexican food and pickles, two foods she had never craved before receiving his stem cells – to the serious.
“You’ve literally saved my life and changed the life of my children so that they could have a mom to be with them,” Sarah told him. “One of the first things we talked about when I came home from my bone marrow transplant was how special it was that there was somebody in the world who was willing to make that sacrifice.”
Sarah wanted to thank the young man in person. She suggested that Thad come to the UK Markey Cancer Center’s Expressions of Courage event, an annual celebration of cancer survivorship and he did.
“No way did I ever think this would happen,” he said. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget. If people here aren’t on the registry and are thinking about it, it’s definitely a good thing to do.”
For Sarah, the moment was truly a dream come true. Fighting back tears, she called out the importance of the team around her, thanking the Markey nurses and doctors who continue to care for her, as well as her personal support system at home.
But Thad’s generosity is the biggest reason she’s still here today.
“Despite having an amazing team of family, friends, coworkers and so many people who are here today, not one of them could do what this man did to save my life,” she said. “And I am forever grateful.”