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How a Life-Saving Bone Marrow Donation Led to a Life-Changing Discovery

Photo: Courtesy of USA Today Humankind Stories Division

Laura Bennett has spent her entire life searching for answers.

She was born in El Paso, Texas, and was later adopted by a family who settled in Southern California. Her upbringing was filled with love, but never knowing a blood relative had always left her with a feeling of curiosity.   

In 2015, an ailing acquaintance influenced her to register as a bone marrow donor with DKMS, a nonprofit dedicated to the fight against blood cancer. There was no hesitation in her answer to a stranger in need.  

“It’s just the right thing to do, and it never really occurred to me as something I’d have to think about,” she said.

Nor did it occur to her that the decision to donate would not only save a life, but could possibly answer questions she’d been carrying around for nearly 50 years.

A shocking diagnosis

Steve Gallion’s existence has been one of artistic successes and frustrations, but one grounded in service to the less fortunate. A resident of Tacoma, Wash., who lives with his wife and daughter, Gallion spent much of his adult life as a working actor in theatre, and on screen with his Amazon-produced show, “The Scottish Play.”

Nineteen years ago, extreme dizziness led Gallion to multiple doctors and oncologists visits, which brought diagnoses of high platelet counts, but minimal concern. This changed in early 2017, when fluctuations of extreme pain, skin inflammations and a series of regular fevers influenced him to get a bone marrow biopsy.

Gallion’s tests came back positive for Myelofibrosis, a rare blood cancer that exists in bone marrow. It was progressing and, without quick treatment, it would be fatal.

Doctors had an aggressive plan to shepherd him toward a cure, but he needed a stem cell transplant to repair his bone marrow.

Thankfully, doctors found the matching donor Gallion needed. He knew nothing about her other than that she was female and her cells’ human leukocyte antigen markers were so similar to his, she could be family.  

“We matched on everything,” Gallion said. “The doctor said to me, ‘you know, maybe you have a long-lost sister out there.’”

Uncovering answers

A few months after her donation, Bennett began to think more about how her unknown genetic background could affect the future of her health. She signed up for Ancestry.com and received a 23&Me DNA ancestry testing kit from her husband as a gift.

Results from Ancestry.com gave her one potential family member on the site with the username “wsgallion.” When Bennett received the recipient’s details, she immediately noticed the familiarity of his full name: William S. Gallion.

“I just stared at the monitor for a while and got this fluttery feeling in my stomach,” Bennett said.

While Bennett was still searching for answers, the recipient of her bone marrow donation was progressing through a grueling recovery. Heavy medication. Chemotherapy. But even while going through this, he knew he wanted to contact the woman who had saved his life.

Through DKMS, Gallion received the name and contact of a woman, Laura Bennett.

On October 15, 2017, Laura Bennett picked up her cell phone and reached out to Gallion for the first time. They had an emotionally packed 30-minute conversation. They confirmed that they are in fact cousins, a connection existent in less than 1 percent of donor-recipient relationships. Bennett’s donation helped to save Gallion’s life and, in turn, uncover the familial history she’d longed to find.

James Kirkland, DKMS, [email protected]

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