Michigan leukemia survivor reunites with bone marrow donor

CALEDONIA, Mich. (AP) — Leukemia survivor Bob Falkenberg had one important stop to make on his cross country bike ride, and that was to the home of his bone marrow donor, Jason Rottman.

Rottman and Falkenberg greeted each other with an embrace in front of Rottman's Caledonia home.

The cross country bicycle ride, designed to raise awareness and help others battling blood diseases like Leukemia, marks the 10-year anniversary of the transplant in which Rottman donated his bone marrow stem cells to save Falkenberg's life.

The last time the two saw each other was actually their first meeting 10 years ago this year.

It was approximately 19 months after Falkenberg received the stem cells from Rottman's blood, when Falkenberg reached out to Rottman.

"I just wanted to say thank you, I wanted to meet him," Falkenberg told MLive.com.

It's not unusual for it to take some time for donors and recipients to connect. The Be The Match registry controls all the information of both parties, and only when both agree to share their information are they then allowed to connect on their own terms.

Rottman said he didn't want to push the recipient if he didn't want to meet, but was thankful that Falkenberg reached out to him.

"It was scary at first cuz you never know, 'Did he make it?'" Rottman said. "You don't know what happened to him."

Rottman said they'll "have somewhat of a relaxing day together." He hoped to take him out for drinks and show him around Grand Rapids.

Falkenberg is riding with another bone marrow stem cell recipient, Anne Lipsitz, from Vancouver, British Columbia to Jacksonville, Florida in a span of 56 days in June and July, averaging about 74 miles per day.

Together, the pair are among Team Lifeblood, who, along their journey, are raising money and awareness about the disease.

Their cross country bike ride isn't a conventional coast to coast trip, but instead the stops they make encompass important parts of Falkenberg and Lipsitz lives.

When deciding to pass by Michigan on their journey, Falkenberg said it was a no brainer to stop and see Rottman after all these years.

"This is the trip of a lifetime," Falkenberg said.

Rottman had first joined the Be The Match Registry his freshman year of undergraduate school at Calvin College in 2003.

"I think I just passed by the table and thought 'Hey, that's a cool idea,'" Rottman said.

The process was fairly easy. Rottman said he remembers giving a cheek swab to be put on the initial list to register as a donor.

It wasn't until six years later that Rottman received the call that he was someone's match.

"I didn't fully understand what it was," said Rottman. "They said they were from the bone marrow registry and I was like, 'Oh yeah, I did sign up for that.'"

Falkenberg lived in Atlanta working as a consultant in 2009 when he first learned he had Leukemia. He had no symptoms, but a sudden spike in blood pressure led doctors to run more tests.

"I was fortunate that I had people there that were on the ball, and wouldn't let me go when the blood pressure went back to normal," said Falkenberg. "They wanted to figure out why it did that."

Following eight rounds of inpatient chemotherapy, doctors decided that would be the time to search for Falkenberg's bone marrow donor.

He didn't find a match in his family, but they did find several matches on the registry.

Further testing of those matches led them to believe Rottman would be the ideal candidate.

Three months after Rottman received the call, he went in to Michigan Blood in Grand Rapids to remove his bone marrow stem cells.

For the 10 days leading up to it, he had to receive shots that would produce extra stem cells for the donation.

"You feel sore, you don't feel great," said Rottman. "Once they draw it out of you, you feel yourself by that night again."

Rottman's cells were transported from Michigan to Georgia, where Falkenberg received his life saving gift.

Falkenberg was told he was cancer free almost immediately after the transplant. The first 100 days afterwards, however, were pretty rough.

"Your immune system is repressed and you have to be really, really careful not to get any kinds of infections or any kinds of illnesses," Falkenberg said.

After years of doctor visits, the five-year mark of the transplant was when Falkenberg was told he was cured. No more tests, no more medicine and, most importantly, no more cancer.

In his battle with Leukemia, Falkenberg said his outlook on life has definitely changed.

"I made a commitment to myself when I was in the hospital getting the early rounds of chemo that if I got through all of that, I would do whatever I could to help out other people that are going through it," Falkenberg said.

That's what led Falkenberg to participate in different fundraisers and bike rides, to get the word out and provide hope to other people.

Team Lifeblood has raised about $75,000 for Be The Match.

On this trip alone, Falkenberg said the group has raised about $18,000, the most the group has ever raised on any one trip.

Rottman said it's been "natural" to maintain this connection with Falkenberg.

"We share blood," Falkenberg said. "We're kind of like blood brothers now."

Falkenberg and Lipsitz continued their 3,600-mile bike ride July 10.

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press:MLive.com, http://www.mlive.com

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