Bone marrow harvest sparks bond between donor, 3-year-old recipient

Skye Savren-McCormick, left, and Hayden Hatfield Ryals. Photo credit: Mike Broadway Photography.

When Hayden Hatfield Ryals got married in Hartford, Alabama, June 9, 2018, there was one attendee whose presence tied the whole day together — Skye Savren-McCormick, flower girl and the 3-year-old recipient of Ryals’ bone marrow. The two struck up an unbreakable bond after Ryals donated her liquid bone marrow to Skye, a life-changing and -saving transplant.

Becoming a donor
In April 2015, Ryals was a student at Auburn University and noticed a table for Be The Match, the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world. A passionate believer in donating blood platelets and plasma — she has donated more than 28 times — Ryals figured that participating in the simple cheek swab was just another way she could give back. Like many, Ryals never thought that anything would come of that casual interaction and DNA donation.

However, just one year later, Ryals received a phone call informing her that she was a perfect match for a 1-year-old girl with juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer.

“After processing what I had found out, without hesitation I knew that this is what I was meant to do — God chose me to help this girl, and He knew that it was my calling,” Ryals said. “I had been in a low place in life, and felt this was my opportunity to have purpose.”

Once committed to the donation, Ryals was referred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blood and Marrow Transplantation and Cell Therapy Program for her bone marrow harvest, the collecting the lifesaving stem cells used in transplantation. While the process of donating marrow can be done by means of harvesting stem cells from a donor’s blood, the most common procedure is done under general anesthesia, giving doctors the ability to withdraw liquid marrow from blood-forming cells that made from a person’s pelvic bone. The surgery takes roughly two hours, and most patients can leave the hospital within 24 hours.

“The process of collecting stem cells is safe, is simple and most importantly can save a person’s life,” said Ayman Saad, M.D., interim director of the BMT&CT Program and Ryals’ doctor. “Many of the patients in need of a bone marrow transplant are out of options, and the simple donation from a match — which may be the only match in the world for them, ever — can be the very thing that saves their life.”

Most candidates for a bone marrow transplant are undergoing treatment for bone or marrow cancers and/or leukemia and lymphoma. There is a common misconception that it ’is painful to donate bone marrow, something that often deters people from donation; but for Ryals, that was not something that steered her from her decision.

“When I thought about the fact that this simple donation was saving someone’s life, I never thought twice,” Ryals said. “After completing the process of harvesting and donation, I can say confidently that there is a lot more pain and strife that I would be willing to go through if I knew it could give another person a second chance for a healthy life.”

An unbreakable bond
During the first year after transplant, Be The Match allows for elective, anonymous communication to take place between a donor and recipient and for updates about the recipient’s condition to be shared. Often at the end of the first year after transplantation, direct contact is allowed. Ryals knew that she wanted to initiate consent of contact the first chance she could, and luckily, her recipient’s family agreed as well.

For Ryals, she just wanted to know the recipient’s name and know about her condition. At first, anonymous letters were exchanged, which quickly turned into emails, phone calls, texts and Facebook requests. A bond between Ryals and Skye’s mother, Talia, grew deep, ultimately leading to Ryals’ asking the now 3-year-old Skye to be the flower girl in her wedding.

“To me, having Skye be a part of my wedding was indescribable, but it really brought the whole experience about bone marrow transplantation full circle,” Ryals said. “I could never have imagined that, when I simply stopped to learn more about Be The Match and the importance of bone marrow transplantation when walking to class, I would end up on this journey with Skye.”

Saad and the UAB team perform bone marrow harvests and transplantations daily, but knowing that a personal bond has come of Ryals’ donation is something that reminds Saad that their work is meaningful.

“It’s a very selfless act to register to be a donor, so I hope stories like Hayden’s encourage people to take that first step and get swabbed,” said Saad, a senior scientist in the Experimental Therapeutics Program at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “The Be The Match registry stretches worldwide, so you never know how a simple cheek swab could save another person’s life.”

Ryals knows she is not alone in her experience, but hopes that people looking to find meaning and give back do not forget about bone marrow donation.

“All the time, people want to do good things and sometimes don’t know where to start; but Skye is living proof that the journey I embarked on was worthwhile. People comment about how amazing it is that I saved her life, but the donation I gave actually saved mine,” Ryals said.

Join the Be The Match Registry now by visiting its website. Learn more about UAB’s Blood and Bone Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Program by visiting its website. Complete information about UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center is also available online.