Monday
Feb082016

Craig Foerster: Bone Marrow Donation Saves A Stranger's Life

by Tom Rademacher, Veteran Grand Rapids Press columnist and long-time Michigan Blood donor

Armed with a degree in culinary arts, Craig Foerster can whip up a mean soup fromscratch, as well as whole host of other epicurean delights.

But what he cooked up for a woman living more than 600 miles from his hometown of Suttons Bay in northern Michigan isn’t anything you can render from the kitchen stove or pantry.

“He not only saved my life,” says a grateful Pam Whitmore from her rural home in Buckingham, Iowa,
“but he extended it.”

Craig is a regular visitor to Michigan Blood, where he donates blood and platelets. Years ago, he also signed up for the “Be The Match” Registry, a collaboration between Michigan Blood and the National Marrow Donor Program, which recruits potential marrow donors for patients in need all across the U.S. and around the world.

Nearly four years ago – in September 2011 -- he was informed that his marrow might be a match for a woman he would later come to know personally – Pam Whitmore.

Craig drove from Suttons Bay to a Detroit-area hospital, and donated marrow. The next day, it was transplanted into Pam, and the procedure was a success. “What a wonderful organization,” Pam says of Michigan Blood, “for them to help link him up with me!”

A year after the procedure, Pam reached out to Craig, and the two agreed to meet each other. They’ve been staying in touch ever since – with visits from Pam and husband Fred Koch to Michigan, and via phone calls and social media.

 

Regularly, Pam sends gifts and cards as ongoing thank-yous, and a humble Craig proposes that “I think she overdoes it. “I don’t consider what I did as saving a life,” he maintains, “just responding to an opportunity to be helpful.”

Pam would politely disagree. Now 72, she was 68 when she noticed it becoming more difficult to catch her breath. Then she developed bruises she couldn’t explain. When they became larger and more persistent, “I thought I better get some blood work done.”

No sooner than pulling into her driveway on Hickory Ridge, the phone was ringing with news that she needed immediate medical attention for a pre-leukemia condition.

Eventually, the only option to prolong her life was a bone marrow transplant. As all hopeful recipients come to learn, patients needing blood stem cell (marrow) transplants can only find a suitable match within their families about 30 percent of the time.

The remaining 70 percent of matches are made between complete strangers via the Be The Match Registry. Naturally, the more people who join the Registry, the greater likelihood of matches for the thousands of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases. In essence, a marrow transplant is often the last, best chance for survival.

Pam was in the hospital for a month, and then another month in a rehabilitation facility. She’s currently in great health, and sees a doctor just twice yearly.

Meanwhile, Craig enjoys life in northern Lower Michigan, where he works in Lake Leelanau as a production manager for “The Redheads,” a vegetarian café and tasting room and manufacturer of organic hummuses and dressing sauces.

A 1984 graduate of Traverse City High School, Craig, 49, is glad to be back in the TC area again, having lived most his adult life in Kansas, Florida and Detroit and Flint. His 21-year-old son Brandon lives just a few miles off – and follows in his father’s footsteps as a regular blood donor.

 

In his spare time, Craig enjoys anything that takes him outside to enjoy the benefits of four distinct seasons that define Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties and environs.

His most recent surprise from Pam was a Father’s Day gift of a wooden crate filled with barbecuing supplies – everything from spices and rubs to a small smoker that can be installed within a grill.

Pam says she’s learned not to tell Craig “thank-you” in any other overt ways, since he tends to wave her off. “I tried to say ‘thank-you’ one time and he said ‘We’re not here for that; it’s just what people do,’ but I know that he knows I appreciate him saving my life. I never thought I’d have four more years.”

And something else as well: A sudden affinity for ice cream! According to Pam, she was never one to indulge in the sweet stuff, often telling Fred to go ahead and get himself a dish or a cone, but that she’d pass.

After the transplant, though, Pam believes she became the recipient not only of Craig’s cells, but something known as “Cellular Memory Syndrome,” the pseudoscientific notion that memories can be stored in individual cells.

“I never ate ice cream at all, but after the transplant, I not only like it, I’m the one suggesting we stop at our favorite ice cream place, and three or four times a week.”

Pam also insists that since the transplant, she rises 90 minutes earlier than she used to – taking her first yawns around 5:30 Iowa time. She called her beloved donor to discover he rose at 6:30 Michigan time, which means they’re getting up at the same moment.

“I blame it all on Craig,” she says with a laugh. And she couldn’t be happier for the reason why.