‘I hope that I’ll meet her in heaven’

June 10, 2019
Mary Etta Castles donates potentially lifesaving stem cells at MUSC Health. Photo provided

It was the third phone call that finally gave Mary Etta Castles the go-ahead. She could try to help save a life.

“I was super excited. I started crying when I found out she was still alive. I honestly had thought that she probably didn’t make it.”

Castles had been hoping for that call for two years. She knew there was a seriously ill woman out there who “matched” with Castles through a bone marrow donor registry that Castles signed up for in college. That meant Castles could donate stem cells that might cure the woman’s blood disorder.

But the initial contact, two phone calls between the woman’s medical team and Castles, ended in disappointment. “They told me I was the best match and asked me if I wanted to move forward,” she says. “Then they called me back a couple of weeks later and said she wasn’t ready to receive a donation.”

Castles, now a 25-year-old special education teacher in Columbia, South Carolina, didn’t know much about the woman. “They told me she was 28 and lived in the Netherlands. I just pictured a girl a few years older than me.”

She stayed on Castles’ mind. “You just wonder. You hope that something good happened and she doesn’t need your stem cells anymore. But your brain goes to both sides.”

So when Castles got that third call about the woman a few months ago, asking if she was still up for donating stem cells, she was thrilled. “I was so happy to know that she was still alive. I was really excited to be a part of it. I love to help and be part of anything that brings goodness to others.”

Castles went to MUSC Health in Charleston, which has been a National Marrow Donor Program collection and transplant center since 1993, to begin the process of donating stem cells. Bone and marrow transplant coordinator Stacey Warneke says the center helps between 45 and 60 people a year donate stem cells or bone marrow, depending on what’s best for the person who needs the transplant. The recipients have blood disorders ranging from leukemia to sickle cell disease.

“We’re not taking anything that their body won’t make back. A lot of people think it’s like donating an organ – you’ll never get it back. But the neat thing is, your body makes back all the stem cells or marrow we take in the process,” Warneke says. “You can do this to save someone’s life so they can have years and years of health and be with their families. It does take a very selfless person to do it.”

Mary Etta Castles donating stem cells 
Castles donates stem cells at MUSC Health. They'll be flown to the Netherlands, where a woman close to Castles' age is waiting for them. Photo provided

To donate, there has to be a close match between the donor’s and the recipient’s human leukocyte antigen type. The HLA is a protein that helps the immune system figure out which cells belong in the body.

The whole process is anonymous, so Castles doesn’t know the woman’s name and the woman doesn’t know hers. But Castles has seen what living with a disease can do to a person. “I’ve known people throughout my life who have had cancer. If I knew there was something anyone could do to help them, I’d want them to do it.”

To help the Dutch woman, Castles had a series of shots of the growth factor drug filgrastim to boost the number of stem cells she was producing. Then blood was removed from her arm and run through a machine that pulled out stem cells. The rest of the blood went back into her other arm.

Meanwhile, the woman in the Netherlands had high-dose chemotherapy to try to clear out bad cells and make way for Castles’ healthy ones.

A courier from Be the Match, the registry run by the National Marrow Donor Program, took the precious cargo in a cooler from Charleston, South Carolina, to the Netherlands, more than 4,000 miles away.

Warneke says most donations from MUSC Health go to people within the U.S., but the registry is international. “It brings this whole different perspective when you see the cells are going to somebody far away who you may never meet.”

Castles would like to know how the woman in the Netherlands is doing. “In the U.S., if both people agree, you can meet each other. In the Netherlands, it always has to be anonymous. I’ll never know who she is. But I hope that I’ll meet her in heaven. That’s what gives me hope – that I’ll see her one day.”

For now, she’s encouraging other people to join the donor registry. “It’s so easy, I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it. I feel so blessed to have been part of it,” Castles says. “You get to have a huge part in saving somebody’s life. That’s a really cool experience.”

About the Author

Helen Adams

Keywords: Cancer