Cheryl Wonnell is the first to tell people she’s lived a full, rewarding life. Wonnell is the mother of two grown children, one a judge and the other a nurse. She is also affectionately known among Kansas University athletes as “Sports Mom”. She earned the nick-name from spending 28 years at sporting events welcoming players and fans.
“Baseball was always my favorite sport,” Wonnell said with a wink. “But, I loved them all.” It was hard on Wonnell when a diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) side-lined her at home and the hospital. “That seems like a life-time ago,” Wonnell said as she waited anxiously to meet the young man who eventually helped to save her life with a Blood and Marrow Transplant. AML patients first undergo chemotherapy with or without radiation to destroy diseased bone marrow. Next, after killing the AML cells, patients receive a new blood and marrow system made up of healthy stem cells provided by a donor.
Wonnell’s donor walked ‘with-a-purpose’ into the BMT Apheresis clinic at The University of Kansas Health System and into Wonnell’s waiting arms. Jon Volp was a wrestler in school in Minnesota when he attended a “Be The Match” event that would lead him to Wonnell. “I didn’t think much of getting my cheek swabbed more than two years prior,” Volt said humbly. “It didn’t mean anything then when I first got the call I was a match…but it does now.”
Volp says the whole process of offering a sample of salvia was easy and donating his stem cells was painless. “I think a lot more people would donate if they understood how easy it can be,” Volp said when explaining why he was willing to interview. “It takes a lot of cheek swabs to even find a match.”
Dr. Anurag Singh, MD, The Division of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics at The University of Kansas Health System says Volp is right. Only 1 in 300 people who register to be a donor will actually become a donor. Dr. Singh praised Jon for his donation saying donors aged 18 to 44 are sorely needed as cells from younger donors lead to more successful transplants. Also, Dr. Singh explained how advances in Cellular Therapeutics have opened opportunities for people of Wonnell’s advanced age to be a candidate for a transplant. Wonnell’s age did put her at greater risk for ‘graft-versus-host’ disease, but again advances in medicine are helping her to survive. “With graft versus host disease, Wonnell’s donated stem cells see her body as foreign and want to attack her body,” Dr. Singh explained. “Wonnell comes to the center here to undergo photopheresis to help boost her immune system and make her feel better.”
In the video below, Dr. Singh explains more about photopheresis and how it helps patients like Wonnell live a better quality and healthier life. He says her prognosis is good. Jon shares more of his story and why he came all the way to Kansas City to hug Wonnell. Wonnell shares her heartfelt thanks for Jon, her BMT ‘family’ and the joy of being alive.