How A Bone Marrow Recipient Found His Perfect Match

June 05, 2020 5:00 AM

When Dan Wagner’s leukemia came back, he was devastated. Now he’s celebrating five years’ cancer-free, thanks to his donor and new life-long friend.

After Allegan, Michigan local Dan Wagner finished his chemotherapy treatments at Michigan Medicine in 2013, he and his wife Marcia were looking forward to getting back to running their restaurant, traveling along the East Coast and maybe even getting another dog.

Wagner, now 67, had blood work done monthly to make sure his acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, hadn’t reoccurred.

But as he approached the two year mark of his remission in September 2014, test results raised concerns.

“I knew I had it again,” he remembers. “It was a huge downer, thinking you’ve beaten it and then it comes back.”

The relapse meant returning to the same treatment: six months of chemotherapy that often made him sick in between hospital visits.

“As a spouse, it’s stressful. But you have to be there for your partner,” Marcia says. “Dan definitely learned the power of prayer during this time, and he always tried to keep a positive attitude. That was critical to him being able to have a successful recovery.”

A few months later in early January, the family received the news they had been waiting for: a perfect match was in the bone marrow donor registry. A transplant could move forward after his final treatment.

The family was overjoyed. Little did they know, Wagner’s perfect match would become much more than just his donor, but a lifelong friend and important part of his life.

Wagner’s perfect match

Wagner’s care team found Lacey Knight, a pharmacist in Rhode Island who had joined the bone marrow registry when she was in college. When she got the call about Wagner, she didn’t hesitate.

“There was never a question of whether or not I would do this,” Knight says. “So after a few weeks of different tests, I was at the hospital preparing for the procedure.”

But a wrinkle delayed plans. An unexpected snowstorm in Boston caused issues transporting the bone marrow. Three days after the expected date of transplantation, Wagner’s family grew anxious.

“I was starting to get frustrated,” Marcia remembers. “I wanted more answers. Nothing seemed certain anymore. Our family had already been through so much at this point.”

Thankfully, the bone marrow was kept frozen and finally found its way to the eager patient.

On January 30, 2015, Dan Wagner received his bone marrow transplant. “For me, it was just an infusion. For Lacey, it was a much more extensive process and I couldn’t be more grateful for her. Her selflessness changed my life,” he says

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‘It’s been like getting another granddaughter’

Due to confidentiality policies, donors and recipients can’t know the other’s identity until a year after the transplant.

But both Wagner and Knight filled out all the necessary paperwork before the one year mark.

On the one year anniversary of the transplant, Wagner and Knight each received letters from each other.

And less than two months later, they met for the first time in Massachusetts, immediately forming a bond. Since then, Knight has been to Michigan three times and the Wagner family has been to Rhode Island several times. They even attended her wedding last December.

“We love Lacey, and her husband is amazing too,” Wagner says. “For my wife and I, it’s been like getting another granddaughter.”

When asked if Knight would donate again to someone in need, she said there’s no doubt she would. “If my help could change someone’s life, how could I not?” Knight says.

Recently, Wagner, a patient of Rogel Cancer Center oncologist Dale Bixby M.D., Ph.D., and hematologist John Magenau, M.D., celebrated being five years cancer-free. Earlier this year, he came to the hospital for his regular blood work, and Bixby gave him a celebratory certificate after his results came back normal. Knight flew in for the occasion.

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Reflecting

Wagner has come a long way from that initial cancer diagnosis in 2012, which came just a few days after his 60th birthday. Within only a few days of feeling under the weather, he had been diagnosed with a poor prognosis and obtained a second opinion at Michigan Medicine.

Now, Wagner and Marcia are hopeful that journey is coming to a close. Wagner faced a difficult road to recovery post-transplant but feels great today. He’s given some thought to what the future may look like, in hopes of being liberated from long hospital stays.

Despite the sadness of walking away from doctors he’s spent so much time with over the years, Wagner is looking forward to spending more time traveling.

The couple also continues to run The Grill House & Silo Banquets, but with help from two of their daughters that live in Allegan.

“We’ve made a lot of friends at our restaurant over 20 years, so we won’t step back completely,” Wagner says. “But maybe we’ll finally get that second dog. And of course, travel. But if we don’t get to do that, I know I’ll continue to enjoy every day I have.”

Learn more about being a bone marrow donor.