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Area Firefighter Finds New Way to Save a Life

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A Staten Island firefighter met a leukemia patient whose life he saved — not with a fire hose but with his own stem cells. Firefighter John Jensen, 30, of Great Kills, donated his stem cells to the upstate New York woman, and then met her for the first time two years later at an “Honor Roll of Life” ceremony at Fire Department headquarters in downtown Brooklyn on Jan. 19. Brooke Williams, 27, of Gouverneur, N.Y., was diagnosed with acute leukemia back in 2002. Meeting her Staten Island “hero” at 9 Ameritech Center, Williams was able to say thank you to the man who saved her life. “I felt fortunate to meet her,” Jensen said. “Not many donors get to meet the person who received the transplant.” A father of three young children, Jensen, who is assigned to Ladder Co. 174 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, decided to donate stem cells from his bone marrow in October 2000 after attending a marrow registry recruitment drive while he was at the FDNY’s Bureau of Training on Randall’s Island. Williams was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2002. She began to respond well to chemotherapy, but four months later she suffered a severe relapse. Her only chance of survival was to have a stem cell transplant. Finding a donor with the right blood type normally takes four to six months. The wrong blood type would lead to rejection and almost certain death. So she had to wait while her doctors searched for a donor with the right blood type. Meanwhile, her condition was deteriorating so much that she began making plans for who should care for her eight-year-old daughter after her death. Then just four weeks later in 2003, the New York Blood Center called the firefighter from Staten Island to tell him that he was a possible match for Williams. Jensen immediately agreed to go to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he went through a series of blood tests and medical exams. It turned out he was a ‘perfect match’ and one in 10 million. That is how many people are on the worldwide donor list. Blood cells, including white, red and lymph arise from stem cells, which are created by bone marrow. Stem cells are usually present in the blood in very small numbers. Hormone shots are therefore given to boost the number of stem cells in the blood stream, by drawing them out of the marrow. These stem cells are harvested by circulating large volumes of blood through a hemapheresis apparatus and skimming off the stem cells. Jensen completed a six-hour-a-day, four-day procedure to remove the cells on Jan. 19 2004. Williams then received her new stem cells the next day at Roswell Park Center Institute in Buffalo. But donating the cells was not the end of the firefighter’s hardship. He felt like he had flu with ache in the bones, joints, and body in general and had to take four weeks off work. He also could not play with his three children, including his newborn daughter. For a week after his stem cells were removed, he said he felt weak and had dizzy spells. Jensen played down any idea of heroism, and said that his wife had been very supportive. “There was no prolonged discomfort,” he said. “It was little sacrifice on my part.” And he says he wishes more people would do it. “You give up basically 24-hours of your life to help someone live,” said Jensen. “Many more people could help.” This is the third time Jensen has been called, but the first time he was a perfect match. And he would do it again, he says. Since the transplant Jensen, who once worked as an emergency medical technician, learned that the transplant recipient was doing well, but he felt it was not his place to contact her. That was until the FDNY organized the ceremony to add his name to the “Honor Roll of Life” mahogany plaque that hangs at the department’s headquarters. Some of the 72 names that are now on the plaque are annotated with “Lost in the Line of Duty on 9/11/01.” The department started its bone marrow donation partnership with the New York Blood Center in 1990. The ceremony, which was co-led by FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, also honored another donor, former Queens firefighter Joe Kazlauskas of Smithtown, L.I. Kazlauskas, 32, who is now an officer in the Nassau County Police Department, donated his bone marrow to a leukemia patient in Glenn Hale of Phoenix, Arizona. “No other organization has provided more members to the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) or given more marrow to patients,” said NYBC chair Howard Milstein, referring to the FDNY. Donations from the FDNY amount to over ten percent of all of bone marrow and stem cells the NYBC receives. Jensen says that all almost firefighters are tested to see if they can donate bone marrow and stem cells. “A lot of guys don’t get a call, but if they did, everyone would donate their stem cells,” said Jensen. “There are 72 names on the plaque, but not one firefighter called has ever said ‘no.’” Jensen says that the Fire Department encourages their employees to honor civil duty. “In the Fire Department, we are taught that we are part of society, and this is how everyone should be,” Jensen said. “The Fire Department nurtures you to be this way. It’s hard to explain bond. It really is like we are like brothers.” But that is not the only bond he now feels beyond his own family. He will be keeping in contact with Williams, he says. After the ceremony he took her out to show her the city’s highlights. “I feel like there is a connection,” he said. Williams has now returned to her home, just 25 miles from the Canadian border, to continue her recovery. And her prospects look good. Williams has now been in remission for two years. For more information, call 1-800-933-BLOOD or visit www.nybloodcenter.org.

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