The strength within
They are ordinary Cairns residents who have shown extraordinary generosity and sacrifice to try to save the life of a stranger.
Cairns bus driver Jeffrey Smith was likely the only donor match in the world for an overseas leukaemia patient who needed a life-saving blood stem cell transplant.
And Woree school administration officer Michelle Bowen had been on the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry for almost 30 years when she received the surprising call that she was a match for an Aussie kid battling leukaemia.
Jeffrey and Michelle are our city’s unassuming heroes who selflessly donated blood stem cells in an effort to try to save the lives of two people whose options had run out.
For Jeffrey, it was a journey that started eight years ago when he added his name to the donor registry.
The 46-year-old had almost forgotten he’d signed up to donate when he received a call saying his tissue type was a match for a woman with leukaemia living in another country.
After efforts were exhausted to find a suitable donor for the woman in her own country, the worldwide donor registry was tapped into and Jeffrey was found to be a match – likely the only known match in the world at the time.
"I was a bit shocked," Jeffrey recalls.
Donors are told little about the recipient – the registry’s strict confidentiality rules prevented Jeffrey from even knowing which country the woman lived in.
All he knew was she had a life-threatening illness and she was in dire need of his healthy blood stem cells, which are formed in the bone marrow – the soft, spongy tissue in the centre of our bones.
The bone marrow in the breastbone, skull, hips, ribs and spine contain stem cells that produce the body’s blood cells, including white and red blood cells and platelets.
For cancer patients whose bone marrow has been destroyed by large doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant offers the best chance of achieving remission or a cure.
Jeffrey didn’t hesitate to donate last November after learning about the serious and complicated procedure for a peripheral blood stem cell transplant, where the stem cells are collected from the circulating blood stream.
It is a less invasive procedure than a bone marrow transplant, where doctors drill into the bone to remove blood stem cells directly from the marrow while the patient is under a general anaesthetic.
But blood stem cell donors are still required to travel to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital to donate, and Jeffrey took two weeks off work for the procedure and recovery.
The first step in the process is to undergo a physical examination by a doctor – including a chest X-ray, an electrocardiogram to rule out any heart abnormalities, and a vein assessment – to ensure the person is a suitable candidate for the procedure.
Those who pass the physical exam are given a hormone-like treatment, known as G-CSF, by a small injection under the skin daily for four days to stimulate the bone marrow to produce more stem cells, which are pumped by blood through the donor’s veins.
On the day of the five-hour procedure, a needle was inserted into a vein in Jeffrey’s left arm to draw his blood into a cell-separator machine, which selectively removed the stem cells and then returned the remaining blood to his body through a needle in his right arm.
Some donors experience nausea, a tingling feeling or chills during the procedure, but Jeffrey didn’t suffer any negative side-effects during his donation. He was fatigued after it but felt revived after a good night’s sleep.
Jeffrey’s healthy blood stem cells were sent overseas and given to the leukaemia patient intravenously, finding their way into her bones to form healthy marrow.
In May, Jeffrey was asked to travel to Brisbane to donate to the same woman again. This time her cancer-battered body needed lifesaving white blood cells, which fight infection and protect the body against foreign organisms.
Yet again, Jeffrey didn’t think twice about sacrificing his holidays to travel to Brisbane to perform the donation.
"I just want to help people to get better and to live longer," he said. "It feels good."
At last word in July, the leukaemia patient who received Jeffrey’s donation had recovered and was back at work.
Michelle became aware of the donor registry after her brother needed a life-saving donor match to fight leukaemia more than 30 years ago.
Luckily, her brother didn’t have to wait long to find a match – she turned out to be his saviour.
Physicians drilled into Michelle’s hip and lower back to remove the life-saving bone marrow while she was under an anaesthetic.
The transplant was successful and her brother, 52, is alive and well thanks to her generous gift.
But Michelle didn’t stop there. She added her name to the donor registry in the hope she could help save another life one day.
That day came in 2010 when she found out she was a match for an Australian child fighting leukaemia.
The child needed a peripheral blood stem cell transplant and Michelle, 50, travelled to Brisbane last May to undergo a six-hour procedure.
"To be a match to a perfect stranger was incredible. I didn’t give a second thought to doing it," she said.
Unfortunately, the child lost their battle with leukaemia a few months after receiving the transplant. Although it was a painful outcome for Michelle, she was grateful she had been able to offer his family the precious gift of hope.
"I felt lucky that I could give this child a chance," she said.
To date, the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry has more than 180,000 names on it and has given more than 2200 people a second chance at life.
It is a rare opportunity to be matched with someone in need of a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant, with just one in 1500 Australians on the registry asked to donate each year.
Those who are matched with a patient and choose to donate are reimbursed for their travel costs.
Jeffrey and Michelle were honoured by the Australian Red Cross Blood Service at a donor recognition ceremony in Cairns last month, receiving a framed certificate and a gift to thank them for their kindness.
Pauline Martin, Queensland Bone Marrow Donor co-ordinator, said the selfless acts by Jeffrey and Michelle to help strangers in need were "heroic".
"There’s not many people who would sacrifice for someone they’re never going to meet," she said.
"The generosity is just overwhelming."
For more information about becoming a donor or to join the registry, go to
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Michelle Bowen and Jeffrey Smith know they have something amazing to offer Photo: BRENDAN FRANCIS