UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center Magazine Winter 2018 2018 Volume XXXIII Number 3 - Page 30

quick takes Cancer Patient Meets His One in 24 Million Match Jimmy Roberson and Alina Franke It took a harrowing diagnosis of aplastic anemia, two unsuccessful chemotherapy treatments, 50 blood transfusions, more than 25 platelet injections, and almost three years and 4,650 miles before Talladega, native Jimmy Roberson could meet who he says is his angel here on Earth. Her name is Alina Franke, a 27-year-old Hamburg, Germany, native who donated stem cells way back in 2009, all because she hoped to help someone in need one day. That someone turned out to be Roberson, a former Talladega County commissioner and Chelsea City Council member. Franke and her boyfriend, Christoph Kleeberg, traveled from Germany to the United States in September to meet Roberson and his wife, Michele, for the first time. The meeting at the Birmingham International Airport was emotional for Roberson and Franke, who had previously communicated through email, but never spoken to one another. “Neither one of us could talk at first,” Roberson says of the airport meeting. “We were hugging, and I don’t know if I was shaking and it was shaking her, but we both were shaking. And we were in silence for 30-45 seconds. I finally just told her that I wanted to thank her for saving my life, and that she’d always be my angel. Always.” “It was an emotional experience, for sure,” Franke says. “I didn’t think I would ever meet my recipient. When I learned someone was going to benefit from my stem cells, I was just excited to learn someone was being helped.” For Roberson, help arrived in the form of a one in 24 million long shot. That’s how many people his caregivers at 28 U A B C O M P R E H E N S I V E C A N C E R C E N T E R UAB and the Be The Match Foundation had to go through to find what, or better yet, who Roberson needed — Franke, who was a perfect match. “The clock was ticking on my life, and fortunately, my angel was found,” says Roberson. “I would not be here today without her kindness, her selflessness and her willingness to give of herself, all in the name of helping a total stranger — one who ultimately wound up being half a world away.” UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the School of Medicine’s Blood and Bone Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Program team of physicians and nurses were vital to keeping Roberson alive long enough to receive the transplant at UAB Hospital, he says. “Between my wife and the care team at UAB — I would never even have had the opportunity to be alive long enough to get the transplant, and even after the transplant when I had some really bad days when my body was trying to reject the bone marrow,” says Roberson. “My doctors, Antonio DiStasi, Racquel Innis-Shelton, Luciano Costa, Donna Salzman and many others, and then my nurses, Lea Freeman, Jay Smith, Tiffani Hill, Becky Howard, Melissa Sentell, Binita Parekh and so many others — everyone, literally everyone, in UAB’s bone marrow unit are family to me. I just love them and thank them for everything they did for me.” After Roberson improved enough to go home and he continued to regain his strength, he hoped to one day meet his donor. Typically, recipients can ask the Be The Match Foundation to reach out to donors to see if they would be willing to connect one year after the transplant. But in Roberson’s case, he had to wait two years to comply with Germany’s rules on contact with donors. When the Be The Match Foundation connected with Franke, she said she was willing to learn who the recipient of her bone marrow was. After the Robersons and Franke had written each other through email over several months, the Robersons offered to host Franke and Kleeberg any time they wanted to come to the United States. “Alina is very humble, and she did not donate to receive recognition,” Roberson says. “She did it purely out of the kindness of her own heart. I can never repay her for what she did, but Michele and I could tell her how much we appreciate what she did and love her for what she did.”