‘Crazy, beautiful, wonderful miracle’: Bone marrow transplant recipient, donor form friendship without knowing each other’s names

MADISON, Wis. – In a time when human connection feels fleeting, whatever words we can send have all the more weight.

“I don’t have adequate words to thank you for all you have given me,” Kristine Kappel read from a letter she wrote and sent to a stranger.

Her words are especially true when so much could have been taken away. In 2019, Kappel got the news she had leukemia.

“The doctor came in and her face was just ashen,” she recalled. “They were like, ‘You’ve got about six weeks to live if you do nothing.’”

But a woman she didn’t know living states away had already done something. Heather Pelican of Colorado serendipitously signed up for a bone marrow transplant registry at a festival in 2014. She ended up donating her marrow years later to Kappel.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like on the other side, waiting for a donor,” Pelican said. “It really was a blood draw, but for the family, it’s so much more than that.”

She said there was no pain in the procedure as she once thought.

“I think being scared to do something is a not a reason why you shouldn’t save someone’s life,” Pelican said.

For Kappel, the donation and surgery at University Hospital came just in time.

“I was elated,” Kappel said, “absolutely elated.”

“I had the blood cells to share,” Pelican said.

That could’ve been the end of their story, but the strangers had more to share.

One year without names, faces

Kappel wondered how to thank someone for something of this magnitude. That was made even more difficult by the fact that they weren’t allowed to know each other’s names.

“You could not have any information,” Kappel said.

“I wanted to so badly,” Pelican said. “I couldn’t wait to get more information.”

In the first critical year after the donation, the donor and recipient aren’t allowed to exchange personal information.

“There are occasions when we would need to ask the donor for additional cells,” said Karen Kranz, a transplant coordinator for the bone marrow transplant team at UW. “Having that person-to-person contact could complicate that a little bit.”

Pelican and Kappel’s families kept it simple, passing reviewed notes through the transplant team. Certain information would be redacted, but their messages got across.

“I have been truly blessed with your gift,” Kappel wrote in a letter.

Pelican responded, sharing news of her pregnancy, which had it come three months sooner, would’ve made her ineligible to donate.

“It was incredible timing,” Pelican said. “I was just so grateful to hear how grateful they were.”

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The pair’s exchanged words were building blocks of an unexpected friendship.

“It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it’s very special. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I can count on one hand the number of meetings I’ve seen or been part of,” Kranz said. “Just the happiness, the kindness, the genuine feeling of caring, one human being to another, is so, so refreshing, especially these days.”

The ‘meeting’

Finally, a year passed and Kappel and Pelican could get to know who the pen pal they’d each been referring to as their “twin.” That meant pictures and names to pair with the words.

“It was hard to wait, but worth it,” Pelican said.

Kappel was overjoyed to see Pelican had brought new life into the world with her newborn, Luna, just as she had given her new life.

“For me, it was just gratitude every single day,” Kappel said. “Gratitude, thankfulness, just appreciation.”

For Kappel, they’re days filled with more meaning thanks to the unlikely connection.

“It’s just a crazy, crazy, beautiful, wonderful miracle,” Kappel said.

The two hope to meet in person when it’s safe to do so.

Pelican and Kappel stress how important the Be The Match registry is. Those interested in signing up can do so in a few minutes on this website.

“It touches so many lives,” Kappel said.