Voeltz excited to meet man who saved his life

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta's Leif Voeltz, studies a life saving bone marrow donation from German resident Marcel Waldman, The photo was taken in 2015, when Leif was incredibly sick and had just endured aggressive chemotherapy to ready his body for Marcel's then-anonymous donation.

After surviving incredible odds and beating Acute myleoid leukemia, Mount Shasta’s Leif Voeltz will meet the man who donated the bone marrow that saved his life.

Leif will connect with his personal hero, 28 year old Marcel Waldman – who lives halfway around the world in Heidelgasse, Germany – at the City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion on May 10.

Each year, City of Hope selects one pediatric transplant patient and one adult patient for the celebratory honor, said Leif, and this year is his lucky one.

“It’s an intimate relationship,” Leif said, describing his connection with Marcel, who was just 23 when he made the Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation. “It is such a heroic thing to do.”

Since receiving the transplant in December of 2015, Leif said he reached out to thank his donor, although due to registry regulations, it was anonymously.

“He didn’t have to respond,” Leif said. “He’d done enough.”

About three weeks ago, however, Leif got the message that his donor wanted to contact him. He and Waldman began communicating via email, but soon learned that they’d get to meet face to face at the BMT reunion.

Voeltz said he’s excited to express his gratitude for Marcel’s lifesaving donation, which affected not only his own life, but those of his wife, family members and the community of Mount Shasta, which was incredibly supportive throughout his illness.

He will be touched to meet now 28 year-old Marcel and his family, who are all being flown to southern California for the event by City of Hope.

Marcel’s bone marrow was an 80 percent match with his own, Leif said.

For the transplant to be successful, donors need to match at least six of a recipient’s 10 human leukocyte antigens. It is difficult to find someone who matches all 10, since there are 2,500 of these markers, and each person has just 10.

Leif’s next best donor option was his brother, who was a 60 percent match. And while his doctors wanted to use his brother’s bone marrow, the transplant board insisted on Marcel – something Leif is grateful for today.

Leif was diagnosed with leukemia in August of 2014, although he had been feeling off for months. Leif and Lacy were in southern California for a wedding when Leif felt like he had the flu and went to the emergency room. Within an hour, his organs began failing and he went into a coma.

Doctors immediately began intense chemotherapy, which continued for six months. He was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve, seemingly cured.

In July of 2015, however, Leif relapsed; the leukemia came back with a vengeance. At one point, Leif was given a two percent chance of survival.

While searching desperately for a bone marrow donor, Leif prepared by undergoing intense chemotherapy to rid his body of cancer, making him feel sicker than he ever had before. He received his transplant on Dec. 16, 2015. With the introduction of Marcel’s bone marrow, Leif’s body is now generating healthy red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells.

He has been cancer free since – something he’ll celebrate with thousands of other transplant survivors at next month’s BMT reunion.

Leif’s genetic makeup is not too unusual – his ancestors were mainly western European immigrants from Germany, England and Ireland – so he was shocked to learn that there were no perfect matches for him in the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match registry.

Those of African American, Asian or Hispanic descent have a more difficult time finding an appropriate match. Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others, according to Be the Match, so a person’s best chance of finding a donor may be with someone of the same ethnic background.

To find him an appropriate match, Leif’s friends and family organized donor drives in Siskiyou County, Bend, Ashland and Marin County. Although they ended up not benefiting Leif directly, at least three people were identified as possible matches for others through these drives, said Leif’s wife, Lacy.

And although the experience was harrowing, at least three other people’s lives were potentially saved as a result of those donor drives and his illness, said Lacy, which is a comforting thought.

To those who are faced with a seemingly insurmountable diagnosis, Leif said to have confidence in yourself and your doctors.

“Doctors talk from a statistical standpoint. They don’t take into account who you are, your grit and the support you have,” Leif said. He credited his “unbelievable support system” and Lacy, for being such an “incredible advocate” while he was ill.

Lacy said it also helped that Leif was in excellent health before his diagnosis.

After owning The Fifth Season in Mount Shasta for more than 40 years, Voeltz is now retired, although he stays active in the community that he loves.

The registry

Anyone between the ages of 18 and 60 can become a member of the Be the Match registry in hopes that their unique genetic makeup can help save someone’s life. Joining is painless and involves only the swabbing of the inside of the cheeks and some paperwork.

Three thousand people die each year because they don’t have a match. Many of those are children between the ages of two and six years old.

There are two processes of donation. Most of the time, Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation is used. Donors are given injections each day for five days, to stimulate bone marrow. On the day of donation, blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out blood-forming cells. Remaining blood is returned to the donor through their other arm.

The PBSC process is much the same as giving platelets – not painless, but the pain is minimal, according to Be the Match.

About 25 percent of the time, donors will have to go under light anesthesia. A small incision is made in the lower back, and doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of a donor’s pelvic bone.

Physicians will select the method which will produce the best outcome for the patient.

If you are called to donate, Be the Match covers travel expenses such as airfare, lodging and food. You will most likely need to travel to Portland, Ore. or the San Francisco Bay Area.

To learn more about the Be the Match National Registry, go to www.bethematch.org