Teenage son helps his father fight leukemia by being his bone marrow donor

A lasting gift

When a Silver Spring dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, his teenage son was his best hope for survival

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Next, she approached Stew, who was 14 at the time, holding back the information that he was perhaps his father’s best chance at survival. “I wasn’t like, ‘Daddy’s going to die if you don’t do this,’ ” she says. “I tried to frame it as if he had a choice.”

Before she even launched into the specifics, Stew had made that choice. “I was a million percent that I would do it,” he says. “Even if there was a risk for me, I would have done it, but there was no risk. It wasn’t even a decision.”

Paul and Julie are quick to point out that Pierce also volunteered to help his dad, but he was 11 at the time, too young to donate. No father envisions relying on his son for help, but for Paul, Stew was perhaps his last shot at a long and healthy life. “I made it very clear that what he was doing was extraordinary, and there’s no way to repay that,” Paul says. “I hated to put him in that position, but there were no other reasonable options. I commended him for his courage, and of course his brother, too, for being eager to step up.”

Aside from two hernia operations he underwent at the ages of 2 and 5, Stew has been blessed with good health. The night before the transplant, he was “a little nervous,” and instead of celebrating Halloween the next day, he headed to Baltimore for a roughly 90-minute procedure in which about 1 liter of his bone marrow was extracted. It’s supposed to be a relatively painless procedure, but as doctors tried to anesthetize him, the needle hit a nerve in his wrist. “That was the worst part,” Stew says. “After that, I didn’t want to do it again, but I had to, obviously.”

The next attempt, this time through the back of his hand, was successful, and as he listened to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (the song he picked), the drugs took effect.

During what is called a bone marrow harvest, Stew lay prone on his abdomen while doctors inserted needles in his pelvis and back around 100 times, withdrawing about 10 milliliters of marrow from his bones each time. He received fluids to replace the marrow that was extracted, which caused standard post-procedure swelling.

The thick, dark marrow, which looks like blood, was taken to a lab before being placed into Paul hours later through an IV in the same manner as a blood transfusion.

“We’re essentially inserting a new immune system,” Webster says. “Most cancer is a result of the failure of the immune system. The new immune system can fight the cancer, in this case leukemia, and hopefully prevent it from coming back.”

When Stew returned home that night, the Tewksburys’ next-door neighbor, Rose Marie Martinez, was waiting. Her husband, Donald Shriber, had driven Julie and Stew to and from the hospital. “I remember them coming up the stairs and thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ [Stew] didn’t look good,” Martinez recalls. “He wasn’t walking very well—he was very stiff. His face was still very swollen. Besides that, he was fine. He was just a little tired.”

And hungry. After wolfing down a steak, Stew went to bed. The next morning, his back was sore, but otherwise he felt good. As a precaution, he stayed home from school that week—mostly passing the time by playing the new Nintendo Switch game console a family friend had given him—and missed two baseball games. Other than occasional pain in his wrist, which doctors say will go away as he grows, he made a swift and full recovery.

“My dad and I have established a certain connection and bond that barely anyone else in the world can achieve,” he says. “It’s not like we wanted that to happen. We had no choice. It’s something that can never be removed.”

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