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Bone Marrow Recipient Meets Tarzana Lifesaver : Medical: The two are united in a tearful ceremony more than two years after the 27-year-old woman learned she would die without a donor.

May 15, 1994|ERIC SLATER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Under the rush of emotion, Tracy Van Ryswyk found simple words work best.

"Thank you," the 27-year-old waitress and cosmetologist said again and again. "Thank you. Thank you for saving my life."

For Paramount television executive Joe Lucas, there were no words at all.

The two were united in a tearful ceremony organized by the American Red Cross on Wednesday night, more than two years after the tall, bright-eyed Van Ryswyk learned she'd die without a bone marrow donor, and one year after Lucas, of Tarzana, underwent surgery to save the life of a stranger.

The ceremony at Paramount Studios in Hollywood--which also honored 25 other marrow donors from Southern California--brought to a close two years of hope and fear and unanswered questions for those on both the giving and receiving ends of the biological gift.

The 45-year-old Lucas was introduced to bone marrow transplants on his way home from a softball game in 1990. A friend stopped to have his blood tested, hoping he could match tissue types with the young Adam Brock, whose search for a donor had captivated the Los Angeles area at the time. The friend invited Lucas to be tested as well.

Neither matched (and the 12-year-old Brock died in 1991, before a donor could be found) but both registered their names with the National Marrow Donor Program.

Two years later and more than 500 miles away in Mesa, Ariz., Van Ryswyk became ill. She began thinking something was seriously wrong, despite reassurances from various doctors.

"I was having stomach problems," she said. "My spleen was getting really big."

In April, 1992, she was diagnosed with chronic leukemia.

The options were horrifyingly simple: she could find a marrow donor or die.

Van Ryswyk's early hopes for a quick cure waned when she learned that only about 30% of patients find a match with the most likely source--a family member. She was adopted, and so faced lottery-like odds anywhere between 1-in-100 and 1-in-a-million of finding an anonymous donor.

She beat the odds.

In April, 1993, doctors pumped three bags of Lucas' marrow into Van Ryswyk through a catheter in her chest.

When she was checked last month, there was no evidence of the disease.

Because of strict confidentiality rules, patients and donors are not allowed to meet, or even know the other's name, for at least a year after the marrow transplant. The primary reason for the secretiveness is in case a transplant doesn't take and more marrow is needed, the Red Cross can act as go-between.

Red Cross officials--who flew Van Ryswyk in from her new home in San Francisco for the meeting--went to great lengths to ensure the two remained unknown to one another until the ceremony, even checking Van Ryswyk into a Hollywood hotel under the assumed name of Sophie Rose.

When Lucas first matched and learned he could become a donor, doctors told him of the serious risks of surgery, of the possible failure of the procedure, of the pain. He was undaunted then, and remains so.

"I can't imagine any pain great enough to keep someone from saving another life," he said.

There are 60,000 potential donors on the registry in Southern California, but people continue to die almost daily because they are unable to find matches. The only requirements to become a donor are you must be between 18 and 55 and in good health.

For information, call the Red Cross National Marrow Donor Program in Los Angeles at (213) 739-4594, or write to them at 1130 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, 90006.

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