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Nurse's marrow cell donation saves leukemia patient

'It's a gift of life'

BYRON – As a registered nurse, Laurie Burnworth knows all about the technical procedures associated with being a bone marrow cell donor.

She can tell you how and why certain procedures are done, how this and that works physiologically, and how getting more people in the donor database will help more people in need.

Perhaps more important, she also can tell you something that isn't as easy to measure — how it feels to save a life.

Burnworth's donation of marrow cells in 2011 helped leukemia victim Dick France, 72, regain his life.

"I get pretty emotional when I talk about this," France said. "It's a gift of life."

Burnworth, 55, of Byron, didn't hesitate to register as a donor when she saw a sign at the Rock River Valley Blood Center in Rockford a few years ago.

"I had been a regular blood donor for years and years, and then one day I saw the sign to register as a donor, so I did. I just thought it was the right thing to do," she said. "They contacted me in the fall of 2011 and said I was a match for someone who had AML leukemia."

After routine blood tests, chest X-rays, and a physical, Burnworth was cleared for the extraction procedure.

The day after Thanksgiving, she received injections to help boost her bone marrow cell production.

"That helped release more marrow cells. So instead of going into the hip bone they can pull it out of your arm, like a blood product," she said. "I was in the chair from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and they collected the cells. Then I was back to work in one to two days.

"I never felt any discomfort; I would do it again in a heartbeat," Burnworth said.

The donor's medical costs are paid for through the bone marrow program.

"They paid for it all," she said. "It was just my time and gas."

Burnworth's marrow cells were flown immediately to Ohio, where France was waiting.

"He had been undergoing chemotherapy to kill off his immune system so his body would accept the cells," she said. "All I knew was that the recipient was a man and that he had leukemia. Within a couple of weeks, I learned he had received them."

Donors and their recipients remain unknown to each other until a year has passed.

"We sent anonymous cards and letters," Burnworth said. "I remember he wrote about his dog."

If both parties agree, contact information is shared after a year.

In December 2012, France called Burnworth and left a message.

"He said who he was and that he and his wife, Pat, were going out to visit some neighbors for Christmas and he hoped that I'd call him back. And then it just hit me: He had lived to see another Christmas, which was just really cool."

Burnworth returned his call and the friendship began. The Frances even invited Burnworth to visit them at their winter home in Florida.

"When I met them I really saw the appreciation in their faces," she said. "They said, 'We're going to show you off and parade you around,' and they did.

"You don't realize the ripple effect, how they are now helping other people. It really is an honor. I feel very privileged," Burnworth said.

She said her family supported her decision to become a donor, and her strong faith in God also helped.

"My boyfriend at the time asked about some potential risks, but I told him 'God has got me covered'," she said. "Both of us were covered in prayer. It's quite a miracle."

'It's just wonderful what she did'

It was Saturday, and Dick France was busy fishing with a buddy.

That simple pleasure — something that most people take for granted — was made possible by a bone marrow cell donation he received almost 2 years ago from donor Laurie Burnworth of Byron.

"I'm always out doing something," the 72-year-old said from a boat in Florida. "I'm out fishing today. I'm fishing for anything that jumps on my hook."

France, who lives in the state of Ohio but spends a portion of the winter in Florida with his wife, Pat, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008.

He received a marrow cell transplant from Burnworth on Nov. 30, 2011.

The procedure saved his life.

"Absolutely," he said, his voice cracking. "I get pretty emotional when I talk about this. It's a gift of life. I have feelings for Laurie ... it's just wonderful what she did. I told her I would try and make the most out of it."

And France is doing just that – kayaking, walking dogs for neighbors, and most importantly, spending treasured time with family and friends.

"Everything seems to be fine. I have to get blood tests every so often, but I've got back all my energy ... maybe even plus some. I kayak, and every morning we walk dogs a couple of miles. What Laurie did was just a wonderful thing," he said.

Julie Tilbury, manager for the Bone Marrow Donor Program, Rock River Valley Blood Center, said because the odds of finding a match are quite low, more people are needed to register as donors to help save more lives.

"We have a lot of people who join the registry just like Laurie did, at one of our centers," she said. "Joining the registry is so easy, we can do it right at one of our offices. We are in critical need of people to register."

All medical costs for the donation procedure are covered by the National Marrow Donor Program, which operates the Be The Match Registry, or by the patient's medical insurance, as are travel expenses and other non-medical costs.

The only costs to the donor might be time taken off from work.

The Rock Valley Blood Center has locations in Rockford, Belvidere, and Freeport.

For more information and details on joining the registry, visit

What is a PBSC donation?

Peripheral blood stem cell donation is a way to collect blood-forming cells for transplantation.

The same blood-forming cells (sometimes called blood stem cells) that can be donated from the bone marrow also are found in the circulating (peripheral) blood.

Before donation, a donor takes injections of a drug called filgrastim to move more blood-forming cells out of the marrow and into the bloodstream. Then the donor's blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells.

The remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm. It's a process similar to donating plasma.


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