FRIDAY, Oct. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Jennifer Jones Austin works
as a lawyer and child advocate in Brooklyn, N.Y., devoting her
talents to protecting at-risk children. So it may be fitting that
in Austin's own hour of need, her life was saved by donations from
two newborn children.
Austin survived leukemia in 2010 because she received
transfusions of stem cells donated from umbilical cord blood that
had been drawn shortly after the children's birth.
"I would not be here today, sharing my story, if it weren't for those children," Austin, 42, said.
She had fallen suddenly ill with a mysterious ailment in
September 2009. It started out like the flu, with fatigue and
fever, but after a few days, she said, things got significantly
worse. "I woke up and I couldn't see," she recalled. "I was
Austin was admitted to the hospital and underwent a battery of
tests. The diagnosis came back quickly: She had a quick-onset form
of leukemia, and her chances of survival were slim.
"As they talked about how they would treat me with chemo, I started having very shallow breaths," Austin said. "I couldn't breathe on my own."
Another set of tests revealed that the leukemia had entered her
lungs and was interfering with her ability to breathe, she
"They thought I was going to die," Austin said. "They put me into ICU on a Friday and told my family I probably wasn't going to make it through the weekend."
Doctors placed Austin in an induced coma, put her on a
respirator and attacked the cancer with aggressive chemotherapy.
She remained in the coma for 10 days.
Another piece of bad news awaited Austin upon her revival: She
needed a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. "They were
virtually certain the cancer would return if I didn't have a bone
marrow transplant," she said.
But Austin is African American, which makes it difficult to find
an exact match for a bone marrow transplant. Her brother and two
sisters were her best bet for a match, and they underwent testing.
"They all matched each other, but not me," she recalled.
She turned next to the National Marrow Donor Program, which
maintains a registry of people willing to donate marrow. But the
registry contained no matches.
Her family sprang into action, urging African Americans across
the country to register as marrow donors in hopes of finding Austin
a match. They reached out through the media, on social networking
sites such as Facebook and through the national network of African
"We added over 13,000 people to the registry within less than 13 weeks," Austin said -- the largest number of donors ever added to the registry by a single family, and the largest number of African American donors the registry ever tallied in a single year.
And yet it did Austin no good. "Through all of those efforts, we
didn't find a match for me," she said.
But officials at the National Marrow Donor Program had come up
with an alternative. They had identified two cord blood donations
as likely matches for Austin. Cord blood is fast becoming an
alternative to marrow donation for people of ethnic descent because
those cells do not require as precise a match.
"I had heard of the stem cell issue, as a controversial issue," Austin said. "I was not aware of the fact that cord blood was being used as bone marrow transplant."
The transplant itself, which took place in February 2010, was
easy enough, Austin said. They hooked her to an IV, and the stem
cells flowed into her body. But preparing for the transplant was
another story -- something Austin described as "a very grueling
"For your body to receive and accept the process, they have to break your body down," she said. Doctors used aggressive chemotherapy and radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells and knock out her immune system and then gave her the transplant, she said.
"Then I spent 40 days in the hospital following transplant, in solitary confinement," Austin said. "I could not leave the room."
She said her recovery was slow. "It took me until about June to
be able to walk a block and a half without falling apart, and I was
someone who was the epitome of good health," she said. "I ate very
well, I exercised regularly, I was not an ounce obese."
But today, she feels pretty good. "The moments where I realize I
still have a ways to go are when I try to run up a flight of stairs
and I'm tired when I get to the top," she said. "Or when I stand in
one place for 15 minutes, looking at a piece of art in a museum, my
body starts growing tired. If that's the extent of the lingering
effects, I think I'm good to go."
And though the nationwide effort to save Austin's life may not
have benefited her directly, she said she's heard of others who
have been helped.
"I've been told about six different people who said they came to the registry as a result of my situation and have been called upon to serve as a donor for another person," she said.
Given her profession and her calling, Austin sees the donations
that did save her life as something approaching divine
"The irony of it all is, at the end, when I needed someone to help me, the Lord put out the cord blood of two little ones for me," she said.
A companion article offers more about
cord blood donations.
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