Texas woman saves life of cancer-stricken teenager in Japan by donating stem cells

November 19, 2012 5:05:58 PM PST
Genetics can be mysterious, and the proof lies in the story of Anne Connally, the daughter-in-law of the late Texas Gov. John Connally. She was the only known match worldwide for a tiny Japanese teenager when it came to life-saving stem cells. With international matches, time is critical.

The contents of a medical cooler can be worth more than money, even worthy enough to fly around the world.

They were worthy enough to plead for help in 2001, when a flooded Houston airport was going to cause those contents of that cooler to go bad. In the cooler were cells that could cure a cancer, and not much today can cure cancer. It was reason enough for a worried M.D. Anderson doctor to ask Channel 13's helicopter to fly it from the airport to a Houston hospital during Tropical Storm Allison.

"His transplant was delayed by 12 hours but his recovery from the transplant was not affected by that delay," said Dr. Borje Anderssen, a transplant specialist at M.D. Anderson.

One cooler even took Connally's bone marrow to Japan.

"There was no one in Japan, and on the flip side, there was just one person that popped up and it was me," she said.

The tall Texan matched a Japanese teenager. No one could believe they were genetically alike, but they were.

"I am 5-foot-11 and a half. And she's a tiny little thing. She's 5-foot-2," Connally said.

It's hard to understand why families often don't match and strangers do, but the good news is, it works.

"The outcomes for non-family members when they're highly matched, like through Be the Match, are about as good as for relatives," said Dr. Susan Rossman, the chief medical officer for the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center.

Even with millions of names on the International Be the Match List, there aren't enough. Today, only 60 to 70 percent of people who need life-saving stem cells find a donor.

Miraculously, a Japanese girl did 20 years ago. She is now 36, but Connally remembers her tearful phone call of thanks.

"I just started sobbing, she was sobbing and we just kept saying I love you, I love you, I love you," Connally said.

You can also save a life and Be The Match. You can take the DNA test at home and mail it back, or go in person. For more information, visit our Month to Match page.

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