An 11-year-old cancer patient with lymphoma was “broke down” to tears when she met the stem cell donor who saved her life for three years.
James Benzel and his mother Karen Benzel, a 40-year-old business executive director from Alliance, Nebraska, USA, hug and cry with James’ donor, Luke Bugdoll, a 39-year-old police constable from Rotherham, South Yorkshire. At DKMS’s annual London gala held at the Natural History Museum on Thursday.
DKMS (German Bone Marrow Donor Center) is an international charity that aims to help those fighting blood cancer and blood disorders.
The schoolboy, now in remission, told the PA news agency he was “overwhelmed” when he met Mr Bugdoll.
Mrs Benzel said: “I was grateful to have met the man who saved my son’s life and gifted him with a second chance at life.
“It’s just amazing and I’m so grateful.”
Stem cell donor Mr Bugdoll said: “It really hit home because of the fact that it was for James.
“James is a hero in all of this because James went through all of this.
“Walking up to the stage, I knew right away that I would probably have a hard time talking because the emotion was there.
“And actually meeting him was really awesome.”
The 11-year-old was diagnosed in May 2018 with a severe case of aplastic anaemia, described by the NHS as a ‘severe condition’ where the bone marrow and stem cells do not produce enough blood cells.
James then developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that affects the body’s lymphatic system.
Mrs Benzel said her family were “in complete shock” when their son was diagnosed.
“He went from being a totally healthy kid who just finished his first year of school, and then all of a sudden he had these tremendous medical issues,” she said.
“We are sitting in the children’s hospital, not knowing what to do, what to do, where to go.
“It’s a very helpless feeling that you can’t physically switch places with your child or help them in a different way.”
James said he missed two weeks of school and his siblings had to bring his homework to him while he was in the hospital.
After his diagnosis, doctors told the Benzel family that the first step in James’ treatment was a stem cell transplant.
Unfortunately, none of James’ five siblings were a genetic match, so James needed another donor.
In August 2018, James met with a donor, but said he was unable to celebrate properly because he was too ill.
Mr Bugdoll donated his stem cells on 4 February 2019 – they were immediately sent to the USA and James began the transplant process the following day, on 5 February.
James went through conditioning where doctors destroyed any trace of his stem cells to ensure that his body was receptive to the transplant.
Mrs. Benzel said, “The leading-up part isn’t terrible, it’s the side effects you get after, the typical chemo and radiation side effects, he was very sick.”
James was officially declared exempt in May 2021 and no longer requires routine health checkups, only visiting the doctor once a year.
James said it was “great” that he was finally allowed to play with his friends.
Mrs Benzel said it was “great” to be back in “normal life” and to see James doing “normal baby activities”.
As per the requirements of the DKMS, the family had to wait for two years before they were allowed to contact the donor.
James’ mother said the family wrote a letter to the donor and Luke responded “politely”.
Mr Bugdol said he joined the DKMS stem cell register in 2015 after his police colleague died of cancer.
In 2018, DKMS informed her that she was a potential match for a cancer patient. In 2019, he donated his stem cells using his bone marrow.
“They screw some big needles into your back — into the pelvic bone, and they draw stem cells directly from your bone marrow,” he said.
“It was easy, he only screwed two needles.”
Because James was young and required large quantities of stem cells, the only option was to extract them from Mr. Bugdoll’s bone marrow instead of the usual blood extraction.
Mr Bugdoll said: “For me it wasn’t about meeting a person, it was just a matter of doing what needed to be done.”
For more information on DKMS, visit: www.dkms.org.uk/register-now.