‘My blood brother’: Donor, recipient reunite 20 years after life-saving transplant

When Chris Smith, 65, first signed up to be a bone marrow donor over 20 years ago, little did he know it would help save a life and be the start of a lifelong friendship.

Over the weekend, the Barrie, Ont., man received a special surprise from the woman his donation helped save with a reunion in Wasaga Beach to mark the 20th anniversary of the donation.

“I really couldn’t think of any other way to thank Chris, of course, except to get together and celebrate,” said Sue Vanvolkingburgh, 60.

“I really feel like Chris is my blood brother, and so getting together with my brother after a number of years was marvellous.”

Smith was overjoyed by the surprise after not seeing Vanvolkingburgh, who lives near Ottawa, for over four years.

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“It was a wonderful surprise, and it was just great to see her again and see that she’s doing so well. It’s a blessing. You know, what else can I say? She’s a miracle,” Smith remarked.

Chris Smith, 65 and Sue Vanvolkingburgh, 60, celebrating 20th anniversary of life-saving bone marrow transplant in Wasaga Beach, Ont.

Supplied by Canadian Blood Servinces

While Smith suspects they would have been friends even without the donation, there is no denying their friendship started in a unique way.

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Just over 20 years ago, Vanvolkingburgh was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a condition which meant her body was not producing enough new blood cells, leading to her needing constant blood transfusions until she could get a bone marrow transplant.

She went through nine months of transfusions before finding out there was a match in the donor registry.

“There was no surviving the diagnosis without the donation, and it is quite overwhelming to think that someone unknown to me would agree to give marrow,” Vanvolkingburgh said.

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Meanwhile, Smith had signed up to be on the stem cell registry two years prior after his niece was diagnosed with leukemia.

“We come from a large family of nine kids, and we all went and put our names on the donation list, just in case. We knew the odds weren’t good as a family member match, but it still drove us to realize the need for it and put our name on the registry,” Smith said.

Chris Smith, 65, and Sue Vanvolkingburgh, 60, celebrating 20th anniversary of life-saving bone marrow transplant in Wasaga Beach, Ont., with close family.

Supplied by Canadian Blood Services

The two had the chance to meet for the first time in 2005 at a Canadian Blood Services event connecting donors with recipients, and have stayed close ever since.

Since their first meeting, the two have formed a lifelong friendship and have worked to raise awareness about the importance of donating and getting tested to be on the registry.

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Cake of Chris Smith, 65. and Sue Vanvolkingburgh, 60, celebrating 20th anniversary of life-saving bone marrow transplant in Wasaga Beach, Ont.

Supplied by Canadian Blood Services

As a nurse, a mom, and a grandmother, Vanvolkingburgh said what happened to her could happen to anyone, and she hopes that continuing to share her story inspires other people to register to be donors.

Smith is grateful for the role his donation played in saving Vanvolkingburgh’s life but will only take a little of the credit.

“I had a small factor in this. The medical society is the one that really gets the kudos for all this. But it’s a wonderful feeling to know that I was available and willing to help someone else in need,” Smith said.

“I would recommend anybody and encourage anyone to get on the list and do something as rewarding because none of us know what tragedies will strike our family or our loved ones,” Smith said. “The more people on the registry, the better chance it is. She’s living proof, and the friendship that I gained from this is a bonus.”

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Nearly 1,000 Canadians are waiting for a life-saving stem cell transplant. Stem cell transplants can treat over 80 diseases and disorders.

For more information about how to become a donor, people can head to the Canadian Blood Services website.

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