Return to Transcripts main page

Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Stem Cell Donor in U.K. Meets American Recipient Whose Life He Saved; Australian Blood Donor has Rare Antibody; Denmark Leads Europe in Blood Donations. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired July 25, 2015 - 14:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It can't be manufactured. We can't live without it. And there is a global shortage of this life-saving substance. Today we're talking about blood, And blood donations.

This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Now, stay with me here. I know the thought of blood makes some people just want to pass out. But your blood is remarkable. It delivers oxygen, fights infections, forms clots, carries cells and nutrients throughout the body. Perhaps even more impressive is how it gets there. Your circulatory system is this vast and complex network of vessels. In fact, if you lined up all the blood vessels in your body end to end, they would stretch around the earth two and a half times.

But what happens when something goes wrong, when you're injured or sick, and you need the help of a complete stranger to save your life?

At the Winston Churchill School south of London, 60 students fill a classroom, listening to Stuart Phillips. He's a business manager at the school. He doesn't usually give talks to the students. But on this particular subject, Stuart is passionate. He understands what it means to be a match.

STUART PHILLIPS, STEM CELL DONOR: I wasn't aware of bone marrow donations before I started up. It was an article I read when I was in hospital myself. But the article that detailed being a bone marrow donor said that if you're a match for someone, you could potentially help them cure them from cancer, which is, like, you know, a really exciting thing to be able to have a chance to do.

GUPTA: In 1990, Stuart signed up for the Anthony Nolan Register in the United Kingdom. It was the first marrow donor registry in the world, and now it's part of a global network of registries that has just passed 25 million potential volunteer donors worldwide.

PHILLIPS: It's been quite interesting to sort of wonder what it would be like, and who you'd be helping.

GUPTA: Years went by with no word on a potential match. In that time, he got married and had two kids. His family also experienced a devastating loss. PHILLIPS: Well, we had a situation about 11 years ago where we had a

child who wasn't going to be able to survive when born. And I didn't want to accept that there was nothing that could be done.

GUPTA: There was no one to help his baby. But Stuart hoped he could help someone else. He'd have to wait more than two decades before he finally got that chance.

PHILLIPS: If I'm honest, I've forgotten really that I had sort of given up all hope, so it came out of the blue, really. They said you're a match. And if I was willing to go further with this, then it had to happen, like, immediately.

GUPTA: Stuart went to London for testing, where they determined he was still a match. In November 2012, he donated his stem cells, a six-hour process. Stem cells are master cells found in bone marrow that have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. In this case they can bolster the cells in the immune system. Stuart was donating, but he didn't know who he was donating for.

PHILLIPS: It was quite a hard time. Because I can't just -- I'm not one of these people that can just do something like that and not know what the outcome was.

GUPTA: All they told him was an adult female in America needed it urgently. It turned out that Stuart's match is Celia Hutchinson. In 2000, Celia noticed a lump in her neck. That's when doctors diagnosed her with CLL, chronic lymphocytic leukemia. At the time she was in her mid-50s

[14:35:00] CELIA HUTCHINSON, STEM CELL TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT: Well, it scared me because my parents died of cancer. My oldest brother has cancer. And then after I was diagnosed, I found out my youngest brother had cancer. It was very scary for me. But then I had to, you know, say hey, it's going to be whatever it's going to be.

PHILLIPS: I was glad I was able to be there. You know, in 14 years I missed one appointment, and it was because I had pneumonia. But I did drive her in and pick her up. But, you know, you do what you've got to do. You care about someone, you do what you've got to do. That's all.

GUPTA: For 12 years she endured repeated chemotherapy treatments, but the cancer was forming mutations. Her doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston recommended a more extreme option, a stem cell transplant.

HUTCHINSON: I wanted to live. I wanted life. I felt that I was just too young, not to try it and see what would happen so I could go on and live my life and enjoy my children, my grandchildren, and my great grandchildren. And I'm just a great believer that if it can be done, you go for it.

GUPTA: In November, 2012, the American equivalent of the U.K.'s Anthony Nolan register, called Be the Match, notified Celia she had a donor, a complete stranger that would turn out to be Stuart, who was going to donate stem cells for her. The transplant operation was a success, though not without complications. Celia pulled through. But like Stuart, she was left wondering about her donor.

HUTCHINSON: We didn't know where he came from or anything. We thought we could at least meet him within the year, but it didn't work that way because he was from the U.K.

GUPTA: The privacy laws are different for every country. For those two years, Stuart waited anxiously for word on Celia. He only received bits and pieces of information over that time. Until one day, a letter came near the end of 2014.

PHILLIPS: I got a letter out of the blue to say, your recipient wants to make contact with you. Are you happy to share your details? Which we did. And I always wanted to speak to her before Christmas, after the two years. And we had about an hour chat on the phone.

HUTCHINSON: Oh, it was just absolutely fantastic. I mean, I just can't even express it. It was just the most exciting thing in my whole life, to know that the donor has saved my life.

PHILLIPS: I'm just checking my e-mails actually, and I have an e-mail from Celia that's asked me to update her on how the interview goes today.

GUPTA: Nearly every day since then, Celia and Stuart have been exchanging e-mails. But the ultimate goal was to meet in person. So Stuart had an idea.

PHILLIPS: I think she'll be really shocked in a nice way, I hope.

GUPTA: He's coming from the U.K. to surprise Celia.


[14:41:27] GUPTA: Do you know your blood type? There are actually eight different types. People with type O, they're considered the universal donors. That's the most requested type of blood in hospitals. Type AB-positive, they're going to be the universal for plasma. That's the liquid part of our blood that carries cell and nutrients through our bodies. It's most often used in emergencies for patients requiring massive transfusions.

And there are also forms of rare blood. That's the case in Australia, where the man with the golden arm has spent a lifetime of giving to save newborn babies from a blood disease.

On the surface, James Harrison is just an average guy. He loves his daughter and grandchildren. He collects stamps, goes for walks near his home on Australia's central coast. But it's what's under the surface that makes James extraordinary.

JAMES HARRISON, BLOOD DONOR: I got nicknamed the man with the golden arm.

GUPTA: Specifically, it's what's flowing in his veins, James's golden arm, his right arm to be exact, from which he's donated blood nearly every week for the past 60 years.

HARRISON: In 1951, I had a chest operation in which they removed a lung. So I was 14. So when I came out of the operation a couple days after, my father was explaining what would happen because I was on the table in those days. And he said that I had 13 units of blood and my life had been saved by unknown people. He was a donor himself. And so I said, when I'm old enough, I'll become a blood donor.

GUPTA: At that time, you had to be 18 to donate blood in Australia. Not long after James became a donor, doctors called him with an idea. His blood, they said, could be the answer to a baffling problem in Australia.

JEMMA FALKENMIRE, AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS BLOOD SERVICE: In Australia, up until about 1967, there are literally thousands of babies dying each year and doctors didn't know why. And it was awful. The women who were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage. Researchers discovered NTD, and then James was discovered to have this antibody in his blood, which was amazing.

GUPTA: It's called Rhesus Disease, a condition where a pregnant woman's blood actually starts attacking her unborn baby's blood cells. In the worst case it can result in brain damage or death for the babies.

FALKENMIRE: Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody. So it was quite revolutionary at the time. James effectively helps babies in Australia, but he's helped babies all around the world.

GUPTA: James worked with doctors to develop a vaccine using the antibodies in his blood, a vaccine his own daughter even ended up needing.

HARRISON: That resulted in my fifth grandson being born healthy, and it makes you feel good that you've saved a life there and you saved many more. That's great. Today, I'll be making my 1,101 donation.

GUPTA: As he's done more than 1,000 times before, James gets in his car and heads to donate his plasma. He's a familiar face around here. And no matter how many times he's given blood, there's one thing that will never change.

HARRISON: Never once have I watched the needle go into my arm. I can't stand the sight of blood. And I can't stand pain.

[14:45:00] GUPTA: At the donor center, James's plasma is separated from the red blood cells. He gets those back. And the plasma heads off to become the vaccine.

FALKENMIRE: He comes in every week or two. He donates his plasma. His body remakes the antibodies very quickly. And he's able to donate again. So it's really very easy for him to do, and he certainly doesn't see it as anything big. And that's the other rare thing about James. He thinks his donations are the same as anybody else's. He doesn't think he's remarkable. GUPTA: His blood is precious. In his home country, James is

considered a national hero. But he doesn't see it that way.

HARRISON: It becomes quite humbling when they say oh, you've done this or you've done that. Oh, you're a hero. No, no, no. I said, it's something I can do. It's one of my talents. Probably my only talent is that I can be a blood donor.

GUPTA: But it is a big deal. James and his vaccine are credited with saving the lives of more than two million babies. That's according to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. Yes, two million lives saved by one man's blood.

FALKENMIRE: Every batch of NTD that's ever been made in Australia has come from James's blood. And more than 17 percent of women in Australia are at risk. So James has helped save a lot of lives.

GUPTA: Doctors still aren't exactly sure why James has this rare blood type but I think it might be from the transfusions he received when he was 14 years old, after his lung surgery. He's one of no more than 50 people in Australia known to have the antibodies. That's according to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.

FALKENMIRE: Yes, I think James is irreplaceable for us. I think we can't really underestimate what he's done, and I don't think anyone will be able to do what he's done. But certainly we do need people to step into his shoes. And he will have to retire in the next couple of years. I guess for us, the hope is that there will be people who will donate that will also have this antibody and become life-savers in the same way that he has.

GUPTA: James is 78-years-old. In Australia, you can donate blood until the age of 81. So as long as he can over the next couple of years, you can bank on James showing up here without missing a beat.

Another meeting, a world away, as Stuart prepares to make the journey from England to America.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Go get your stick!

GUPTA: Two years ago, he donated stem cells to Celia, a complete stranger in the United States, and they are about to meet for the very first time.


[14:50:19] GUPTA: Every two seconds someone in the United States needs blood. Most frequently, those transfusions are for elderly patients. In low-income countries, it's just the opposite, 65 percent of blood transfusions are given to children under the age of five, and 108 million blood donations are collected around the world, crossing borders along the way. It's a lot to keep track of. It's a network almost as impressive as the circulatory system itself.

It's a familiar scene and it happens all over the world. Come to the blood donor center, register, wait, donate, and you're done. It's what happens next that makes the process of blood donation so incredible. This blood bank is in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to the World Health Organization, of all the countries that report blood donations, Denmark has the highest rate in Europe.

MORTEN BAGGE HANSEN, HEAD OF BLOOD TRANSFUSION CENTER, COPENHAGEN: I think it has to do with culture and tradition. Young people are grown up and told about the meaning of giving blood. Probably they have parents who are blood donors. We can see that. And we have a strong blood donor tradition in Denmark as well.

GUPTA: With all that blood, Denmark has spent years perfecting their system. It's complicated, to say the least. The journey of blood starts with the vein of a donor into a bag. That's handed off to a courier, who delivers it to the hospital's blood bank. Here the blood is tested for diseases like HIV and hepatitis. It's also processed to a centrifuge to separate the blood into its different parts.

HANSEN: It's important to separate all blood in block components because we only need one component for one patient. In that way a whole blood unit could support the patient. There are three patients -- one plasma, one platelet, and one red blood cell. And it's important to separate these components, because the red cells are going into a fridge. The plasma is going into a freezer. And the platelets are kept at room temperature.

GUPTA: There's rare brood here as well. And if the blood bank doesn't have what a patient needs, that's when the real investigative work begins.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then we have two or three donors in approximately 50,000 donors. But intelligently collecting, storing, freezing the blood from those few donors, we can secure a repository of these very rare blood groups. And we have a frozen repository here so that we can always find the blood.

GUPTA: One stranger saving another. It's what happened in Celia Hutchinson's case. In Boston, she and her husband Walter are back at Massachusetts General Hospital for a check-up. Dr. Chen performed Celia's stem cell transplant two years ago.




HUTCHINSON: Good, thank you. And yourself?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Walter, Celia, great to see you.

HUTCHINSON: Same here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take some deep breaths.

GUPTA: Celia has been cancer-free for the past two years. The transplant did its job. And Celia credits her donor Stuart with saving her life.

HUTCHINSON: I hear from my donor almost every day.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you guys e-mail every day?

HUTCHINSON: Yes, just about. Yes.

GUPTA: Everyone, including Dr. Chen, knows that Stuart is actually down the hall from the exam room, everyone, except Celia. He's come from England to surprise her. We tell Celia we want to get some shots of her and Walter in the hospital's healing garden, that the growing crowd of hospital staff just want to see her being filmed. It's an easy sell. And Celia has no idea what's about to happen.


HUTCHINSON: Oh, my God! No! Oh!


PHILLIPS: I bet you weren't expecting that, were you?

HUTCHINSON: No, I wasn't. I just text you this morning!

PHILLIPS: I know, I didn't reply.

HUTCHINSON: I know you didn't. You knew about this?


PHILLIPS: You're in trouble now.



[14:55:01] GUPTA: Some tears, lots of smiles and laughter, a match that turned strangers into friends and family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, she's part of her family, and I think we are of hers, as well. I think I heard that from her daughter sent that message to me. So that was quite nice. We don't have the biggest family anyway, so it's nice to have more people that you can count are a part of that.

HUTCHINSON: I have his DNA. I have his blood. We're like brother and sister, really, when you really think about it. So, I mean, it was just remarkable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He saved my wife's life. I know he didn't feel like he did anything important, and -- sorry. I hope he realizes now what he did for us. He's my hero. GUPTA: Whether it's blood, bone marrow, stem cells, or even organs, donating is a selfless act. A few minutes of time donating blood can mean a lifetime for someone in need. You never know who you might make or the different you can make. For "Vital Signs," I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.