Josh Kemerling and his family now know the man they once referred to as “the man who got daddy’s blood.”
Kemerling, a career firefighter from Georgia, signed up for the National Bone Marrow Registry at a firehouse drive nearly a decade ago. One of his captains had previously donated and helped host the drive.
“He wanted to build awareness,” Kemerling said.
Life went on for Kemerling for nine years. In that time, he and his wife Jessica had their three children, ages 8, 5 and 18 months.
But after nine years, Kemerling got a phone call. He was matched with someone who needed bone marrow to survive.
In 2012, Craig McFadden was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia after receiving abnormal blood test results. A career nurse since 1982, McFadden was working on the Progressive Care Unit at Owensboro Health and underwent chemotherapy to treat his cancer, which went into remission in May 2012.
During follow-up work a year later, however, McFadden learned that his cancer had returned. The return of the cancer meant that McFadden had only one shot at survival: A bone marrow transplant. Of the 10 million individuals in the bone marrow registry, only two were matches.
McFadden underwent prep work at Vanderbilt, but only days before the transplant was to take place, he and his wife Judy received devastating news. The better of the two donor matches, for reasons unknown, would not be able to donate.
Kemerling flew to Fairfax, Virginia in June 2013 to donate stem cells for the bone marrow transplant in the fall of 2013. He missed his son’s baseball championship game to do it, but has no regrets. He knew what was at stake, though he had no idea who the recipient was going to be.
“I knew we had a bigger battle to win,” Kemerling said. “I remember posting a picture on Facebook of me holding the vial and asking everyone to pray for who was going to receive the cells.”
Kemerling also made sure to note on the paperwork that he wanted to meet whoever received the cells, though the registry staff warned him the recipient might not feel the same way.
But anonymous or not, Kemerling said he and his family felt strongly for the unknown man who would receive the stem cells. Kemerling and his wife explained to their children what their father had done and why it was important. That led to Kemerling’s children wanting to pray for “the man who got daddy’s blood.”
With the first donor now not an option, McFadden’s survival hinged on the second donor. What should have taken weeks moved forward in days, however, and on Nov. 6, 2013, Craig McFadden received the stem cells that gave him the bone marrow he needed to survive.
Bone marrow is the material in the very center of a person’s bones and is responsible for generating blood cells and immune cells that a person needs to survive. In order to accept new stem cells for bone marrow, doctors had to do ablative chemotherapy, killing off all of McFadden’s bone marrow so the new cells could take its place and cure his cancer.
A year later, McFadden’s transplant was ruled a success. The one-year milestone also came with a new opportunity: McFadden could meet his donor, if he chose. McFadden said he never doubted wanting to meet the donor.
“I wondered why would you not want to meet? I couldn't wait to meet (my donor),” McFadden said. “I spent that entire year wondering who he was.”
On Jan. 1, 2015, Josh Kemerling and Craig McFadden met face to face for the first time. Kemerling and his family made the trip from Georgia to Owensboro and spent the day with McFadden and his family.
The two had spent a great deal of time before that communicating over e-mail, Facebook and the phone, but it was still a big deal to both that they finally meet in person.
“It just made it all full circle,” Josh Kemerling said. “Now we know who the man that got daddy's blood is.”
Jessica Kemerling said it was important to the entire family to meet McFadden and his family.
“That's when it became a lot more real, when we found out who he was,” Jessica Kemerling said. “It's been exciting. To see him and to see him well makes it all worth it.”
Judy McFadden said she was also grateful for the chance to meet Josh Kemerling and his family.
“I'm very thankful. I always will be. He (Josh) will always know that,” Judy McFadden said.
Craig McFadden said it’s difficult to put into words what Josh Kemerling did for him.
“He's been a blessing to us. If Josh had not been on that registry, I would not be here today,” Craig McFadden said.
And in the end, the two families have grown together because of the experience. It helps, they said, that Josh and Craig are now “blood brothers.”
“It's just amazing that he was my match because we have so much in common,” Craig McFadden said. “It was like we were long lost brothers. We have that connection.”
Josh Kemerling said he sees a lot of providence in what happened, and is quick to give credit to God for his newfound friend and family.
“My kids have another uncle,” Josh Kemerling said. “(He’s not just) the man who got daddy’s blood.”
On Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, the Kemerlings and the McFaddens took part in a reception at Owensboro Health Regional Hospital. The ceremony was partly to celebrate McFadden’s recovery and imminent return to the nursing floor, but also to spread the word about the need for donors.
“I've got a few good years left in me,” Craig McFadden said about his return to the nursing floor. “I'm very overwhelmed by the response to it (Friday’s reception). It was very neat for administration to do this.”
Speakers at the reception included Owensboro Health President and CEO Philip Patterson, who has previously been a bone marrow donor himself, Craig McFadden, Josh Kemerling, Chaplain Bernice McKay-Higgins from Pastoral Care and Dannie Terre Moore with the National Marrow Donor Program’s “Be the Match” organization.
“It was life-changing. It's reassuring that I'm doing my job,” Moore said of Friday’s reception, which saw five people submit DNA swabs (similar to a Q-tip, allowing potential donors to be screened simply by swabbing the inside of their cheek) and information to be included on the registry. “People that are in the medical field, they get it. Their mission is the same as ours, saving lives.”
And Josh Kemerling said that his hope is that more people learn of the need for marrow donors and step up to help out. According to Moore, Kemerling may get his wish, as Owensboro Health requested more information about hosting a donor sign-up drive.
“I just encourage everyone of age to get that Q-tip out,” Josh Kemerling said.
For more information about how to sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program, visit www.bethematch.org.