“How do you thank someone for life?” Man’s cancer journey becomes a family affair

MILWAUKEE (WITI) — For more than a year, he battled cancer — but he didn’t do it alone. It became a family affair, and eventually a call to action.

She flew in from Oklahoma City to Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport. It was, however, no summer vacation for Jennifer Sumner.

Sumner eventually made her way to Froedtert Hospital where she was hooked up to a special machine that took her blood and harvested the precious stem cells from the liquid.

By her side was her brother Ed Dee.

Until March of last year, it was Dee who would do most of the flying — as a commercial pilot. He’s been grounded by cancer since then.

Dee was diagnosed with Leukemia, and following unsuccessful treatments, doctors opted to perform a stem cell transplant on him.

His bothers would not prove to be matches, but his sister Jennifer was.

“How do you thank someone for life?” Dee said.

Stem cells are capable of producing blood in bone marrow. Leukemia prevents the marrow from making healthy blood. A stem cell transplant introduces new cells that can multiply — producing healthy blood again, but first, the procedure needs to be successful.

Doctors say only about 30 percent of the time patients can find a match within their family. It’s the best possible result as the more similar the DNA between donor and recipient — the higher likelihood the new stem cells will be accepted.

“I’ve been having talks with my stem cells — telling them they have to play nice with my brother’s…or else!” Sumner said.

In an effort to help other families looking for stem cell matches Jennifer set up a Facebook page that chronicles her process. It consists of a few shots, some needle pokes and a five-hour blood draw process while resting in bed.

Thousands go through the procedure every year, but most cases depend on a match from a stranger.

Sumner says she’s hoping sharing her story will lead to more donors, and a greater chance of survival for others.

“That’s why its important is to help other people and families that have been touched by cancer and it’s a lot of people that can go through this,” Sumner said.

On the day the transplant took place, it was Dee wearing the medical tubes and resting in bed — with his sister by his side.

Dee received about 4.5 million stem cells from Jennifer, and after recovering in the hospital the family tells us he’s back home and continuing to improve.

“This is so much better. Everything that has occurred thus far has just put cancer and the chemo so far in the back of my mind that it doesn’t even exist for the moment,” Dee said.

Hospital staff symbolically call the day of a transplant a patient’s “first birthday.” Coincidentally, Dee’s transplant took place on his 54th birthday.

The celebration was limited to his hospital room, but there was no better gift than the one his sister had already given him: A chance to cure his Leukemia, and maybe fly again one day.

“My dad always used to say any landing you can walk away from is a good one,” Dee said.

If you’re interested in donating life saving stem cells and or bone marrow you can click on this link.

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1 Comment

  • Terry Marach

    Great job Jeremy Ross. Ed’s journey has been such an emotional one for his family and MANY friends. You told his story well and made us all aware of the importance of stem cell donation. I am sure that his sister, Jenni, is pleased as well. She has made it her mission to bring this need to the public. Happy tears during this story. Thank you.

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