Fighting cancer, with the help of a stranger
Five years ago, Geri Hotard faced an impossible choice — start chemotherapy and accept a 50/50 chance her leukemia would return or wait in hopes of finding a bone marrow donor.
Diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) in May 2013, she had spent a month undergoing chemotherapy before being accepted into a bone marrow transplant treatment program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.
“I remember praying and holding my breath that I would be accepted into the program and find a donor, a feeling reminiscent of waiting for the college acceptance envelope to arrive, but with far more at stake,” she said.
As an only child, Hotard had no siblings who matched her bone marrow. The challenge was to find a match from volunteers who submitted a DNA sample to both national and international registries.
Once a match was found, the volunteer would be asked to inject themselves in the abdomen for a week to convince their body to grow more bone marrow. They would then have to spend several hours at the hospital having their bone marrow extracted under a local anesthesia — “it’s not a pleasant process,” Hotard said of the donation process.
Two potential matches to Hotard’s DNA profile dropped out.
“I was devastated and paralyzed by what that might mean,” she said.
Running out of time
By October 2013, Hotard was staring down the barrel of another round of chemo to keep the cancer at bay. The window to complete a bone marrow transplant was fading away.
And then something unexpected happened — a third match, this one from a man in Germany, who agreed to donate the marrow she would need.
Dr. Parastoo Dahi, an oncologist handing Hotard’s transplant, called to tell her the news.
“She called saying a donor had agreed, the clock had started and I needed to come the next day to the hospital,” Hotard said.
She was put in an isolation room for a month, underwent another round of chemo, and received the transplant on Oct. 27, 2013. It went in through a port the doctors had given her months before “with what looked like a turkey baster,” she said.
For the next six months, her biggest concern was infection as all of her body’s immunities, vaccinations, and T-cells had been wiped out.
“To my great relief and amazement, my distant cousins in England and friends rallied to the cause,” she said. Her family cared for her while she recovered at Hope Lodge, an outpatient facility in downtown Manhattan.
The fight back to a recovery wasn’t easy.
At one point, Hotard said, she had a mysterious case of pneumonia that struck twice, putting her back in the hospital and reducing her weight to 99 pounds.
“Over the next three years, I clawed my way back,” she said.
Meeting her hero
After nearly four years of battling cancer, she was well enough to travel to a friend’s wedding in Germany, where she also hoped to thank the anonymous man who donated his marrow. She asked the transplant coordinator at Sloan Kettering to put her in touch.
In January 2017, the mystery man revealed himself in an email. He was Michael Meister, a 47-year-old married father of two teenage boys living in Münster, Germany.
He agreed to meet.
In June of that year, Hotard flew to Germany with her 29-year-old son, Matt.
“The next morning, June 29, I was filled with nervous energy and headed down to the lobby to meet the man who saved my life,” Hotard recalled. “Michael — Micha as he is called — jumped up and threw his arms around me and held me as I cried tears of happiness.”
They hugged and Meister introduced them to his wife, Elke.
“We were all overcome in those first awkward moments, realizing the significance of what had transpired a world apart four years ago,” Hotard said.
According to Meister, his DNA match that led to the transplant was something of a lucky happenstance.
He had been out walking with Elke, he told Hotard, when they found a donor drive asking for DNA samples, in the hopes they might match with a patient. He and Elke both gave cheek swabs containing a DNA sample.
A year later, they called and said he had a match — Hotard.
“He was told that he was the last on a list of possible donors and, without his donation, the patient had no donor and would undergo more chemotherapy,” Hotard said.
Before they left, Hotard received a promise from the couple that they would visit her in Ridgefield, and let her show them around New York City. As they were leaving, Meister called her something unexpected — “Schwester,” German for sister.
“We laughingly decided that was because of my height, and not my age,” said the 63-year-old Hotard.
Two days ago — on Tuesday, Oct. 2, Meister appeared with Hotard at the 2018 Thrivers Ceremony, hosted by Memorial Sloan Kettering, in New York City.
They were the event’s final speakers — a headlining duo because of how rare it is for a transplant recipient and donor to ever meet. Most remain unknown to one another, Hotard explained.
Hotard said she has her life back because of Meister — and all the doctors and friends who helped along the way.
“All my caregivers, well-wishers and doctors, and now my new “brother” organically formed an invisible team with joined hands that saw me through a harrowing and dark time back to a full and happy life,” she said.
She recalled asking Meister why he had agreed to donate his bone marrow, knowing full well how difficult the procedure would be.
“Because I could,” he told her.
Editor’s note: Residents who wish to enter a DNA registry to donate bone marrow can go to bethematch.org.