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THE NATION

Firefighter Survives in Girl Who Received Bone Marrow

Altruism: New Yorker's decision to donate saved a Nevada child. Nine years later, he died at the World Trade Center.

April 21, 2002|From Associated Press

HENDERSON, Nev. — Chantyl Peterson bursts through the front door, greets her mother and slings her schoolbooks onto the floor. She's a healthy seventh-grader who loves horseback riding and playing the flute and doesn't mind homework.

Nine years ago, she was dying.

A New York City firefighter saved her life back then, but not in the usual way. His bone marrow was a perfect match for the little Nevada girl, then 5 and badly needing a transplant.

During a 45-minute procedure in Milwaukee, his marrow was sent into Chantyl intravenously. It turned her type AB blood into his A positive blood, and she quickly recovered.

Afterward, Chantyl drew a picture for the donor whose name she still didn't know. It showed a little girl being rescued. "For my friend, Mr. Nice Man. Mr. Nice Man is saving Chantyl from a fire," she wrote.

Eventually, she learned his name, Terry Farrell, and they exchanged phone calls and letters. Chantyl and her family met with Farrell on visits to Manhattan. They took the fireboat around New York Harbor and ate lunch in the World Trade Center.

In October, Chantyl, now 13, traveled to New York to be with Farrell for a final time.

She read a prayer at his funeral.

He had died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--like so many other firefighters trying again to save someone's life.

Her mother had always thought Chantyl looked pale. There were nosebleeds and constant bruises. She was only 3 when she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a disease that stops the function of bone marrow. Only a transplant could cure her.

But her parents weren't a match for Chantyl. Neither was her brother, nor her sister. Chantyl needed marrow from a stranger.

Her name was put into the National Marrow Donor Program registry, the world's largest, with 4.5 million volunteer donors.

Doctors told her family that Chantyl had a 1 in 20,000 chance of finding a match.

"They told us it might not happen," says Chantyl's mother, Sheri.

But there was hope.

One of those who signed up as a donor was a 45-year-old married father of two from Huntington, N.Y., a firefighter with Rescue Company 4. Terry Farrell hadn't made anything of it; he never even told his five brothers he had volunteered to donate.

Of five possible matches for Chantyl, he turned out to be No. 1. "They told us they had a perfect match," Sheri Peterson recalls. Farrell went for additional testing required for the transplant.

For a time, an experimental drug seemed to help Chantyl. But when she was 5 a biopsy revealed a mass in her chest. It was T-cell lymphoma, and a bone marrow transplant was the only option.

Sheri Peterson worried the donor might not be available or might have second thoughts about undergoing the uncomfortable 90-minute procedure in which a needle is inserted into the hip. But Farrell quickly agreed.

A nurse showed Chantyl a jigsaw puzzle map of the United States and pointed to New York.

"Your donor lives right over in here," she said.

Farrell went to a New York hospital so his marrow could be collected and flown to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where the transplant procedure was carried out on July 10, 1993.

The following month, Chantyl left the hospital, a healthy little girl.

In a letter, she thanked her donor for his "tough" blood.

Farrell wrote back to his "little lady."

"I don't want you to become too tough with my blood," he wrote in a Sept. 22, 1993, letter.

"Remember you are still a beautiful little girl. My small contribution to you is only half the battle; the other half is yours. I know you are a fighter just by your letter alone."

Kevin Farrell said his brother Terry was always quiet and unassuming, and treated the marrow donation the same way.

"When I talked to him about it afterward, I got a grin out of him," Kevin says. "If you got a grunt out of him, it was a long conversation."

Chantyl wore a new, pink frilly dress in honor of their first meeting, in 1994. Farrell wore his uniform. She rode in his firetruck, and the two families went on a picnic and made brownies together at Farrell's home.

Another day, Chantyl's mother took pictures as the 6-year-old ate lunch with Farrell on the 87th floor of the World Trade Center in the office of one of his friends, by a window overlooking the city.

They stayed in touch--once, she wrote to Farrell about Fire Prevention Week at school and how she had learned how to stop, drop and roll--and five years after their first meeting, Chantyl and her family returned for a surprise visit in September 1999.

Sheri Peterson says, "I just remember hugging him, saying, 'We'll see you in another five years.' "

But then came Sept. 11, 2001.

Chantyl was in her bedroom but heard her mother on the telephone.

"She came out of the room and said, 'Is Terry in trouble? Does he need my help? Do I need to give him some blood?' "

"I told her we really need to pray for him," her mother replied.

Farrell's body was found Oct. 25 in the rubble of the trade center's south tower.

The Peterson family flew to New York a third time, this time to say goodbye. Chantyl recited part of the closing prayer at the funeral.

A New York-based donor program organized by a fellow firefighter will be re-christened to include Farrell's name.

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