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Leukemia survivor celebrates UM degree with woman whose blood saved him

It was the bruises that blanketed his body in the oddest way that brought Patrick Calf Looking into the Browning hospital.

He had a persistent cough that began earlier in the winter and lingered on through a reluctant spring, what seems now a lifetime ago, back in 1998.

But there was something more unsettling about the dark purple marks against his brown skin - so many. Where did they come from? And why was there so much pain?

Calf Looking couldn't, wouldn't know then that his decision to see a doctor would set in motion a chain of events that would forever alter the course of his life.

He didn't know that a stranger, adopted at birth in a state hundreds of miles away from his home on the Blackfeet Reservation would save his life with her blood, or that five years later they would meet for the first time in a silent embrace on the weekend of his commencement ceremonies at the University of Montana.

Calf Looking, a father of four, didn't know then that his diagnosis, acute myelogenous leukemia, would bring him so much joy.

Back in 1998, the doctor in Browning drew Calf Looking's blood, and after scrutinizing it, insisted his patient go to the bigger hospital in Great Falls - immediately.

Concern - and urgency - filled the examination room, and Calf Looking, only 36, took the doctor's message to heart.

He left for Great Falls, and it was there he first heard the word "leukemia." Doctors said he had the life-threatening blood disease, but it could be treated with chemotherapy and radiation.

The news was frightening, Calf Looking said, but the doctors were optimistic and he had faith his close friend Holly Rutherford and God would see him through.

For the next six months Calf Looking's life revolved around a rigorous treatment schedule that made him so weak he could not continue his duties at the community college where he taught algebra and chemistry.

And it appeared his life had fallen apart. "Everything came at once," he said, "a disease, divorce, I lost my job because I couldn't teach - lost my income."

Then, shortly before Christmas, his sister, Cassie, was diagnosed with the same illness; her leukemia was further along than when doctors detected his.

The news was devastating. Physically, spiritually and emotionally, he had been knocked to his knees, Calf Looking said. "It was horrible to hear my little sister was suffering."

More troubling words soon followed. Doctors said Cassie needed a bone marrow transplant to save her life. Yet nothing could be done until they first found a donor to match her tissue type.

No one in their family matched, so the Minnesota-based National Marrow Donor Program was asked to assist.

Program coordinators knew time was of the essence, and they promised their best effort to find Cassie a donor, but cautioned: Of its 4.8 million donors, only 60,996 are American Indians.

Finally, the call the family had been waiting for reached Browning. A close match was found for Cassie, and she flew to a Seattle hospital for treatment.

Calf Looking soon followed for the same reasons. In the first weeks of the new millennium, his leukemia had returned.

His doctor in Browning said he had two weeks to live.

It was the annual leukemia radio-a-thon blasting away on her talk radio station in California that prompted Deborah White to donate her blood to the National Marrow Donor program.

At the time, in the early 1990s, she was a single parent who often dreamed about writing out huge checks to charity but who never had the financial means to write even a modest one.

When she heard the radio-a-thon's call to duty, she realized it was something she could do - and it was something that grabbed her imagination.

When you are an adopted child, White said, like she is, the concept of blood, and whose blood you share, colors your life, and you always wonder if there's someone else out there you are biologically connected to.

So she sought out the nearest blood registry.

While she was getting teeny samples taken from her arm, White was told it could be years before she might get a call that her blood could help someone else.

Sometimes the call comes, program coordinators said, followed by another one saying a better match has been found.

The uncertainty and the spontaneity of it all didn't matter, White said. She wanted to help.

"You learn that you might get a call, and maybe, maybe you could help, but to actually have it go all the way out to a transplant is a really big deal that doesn't happen a lot," she said.

Eventually, the call came: She was a close match for an American Indian woman who needed a bone marrow transplant in Seattle.

It was a thrilling day.

"I was so emotionally up - to think that I could help save someone's life," White said. "Then I got a letter that said an even better match was found, and then I got even more excited for the patient."

When 2000 arrived, so did another request for blood - this time for the brother of the American Indian woman she had been previously contacted about.

It turned out she was Patrick Calf Looking's perfect match.

"When I first matched Cassie and then him, of course the thoughts went through my mind, 'Am I somehow connected to this family?' " White said. "I didn't know my blood or where I came from, and before I had my daughter I didn't know anyone in the world I was part of."

Saving someone else's life suddenly took on additional excitement, White said.

Her blood was shipped off to Seattle.

Doctors told Calf Looking they found him a blood donor.

Down the hall in the same hospital, Cassie, they said, was not doing well with her bone marrow transplant.

Would he be willing to try a different procedure called a stem cell transplant, they asked.

He said yes.

But it meant several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Doctors had to first destroy his bone marrow before his system could be fertile ground for new blood - White's blood - to graft and produce healthy blood cells.

And it meant his immune system would be too compromised to risk visiting his ailing sister, even though she was just rooms away from his.

"I couldn't hold her hand or pray with her, and that was really hard," Calf Looking said. "I wanted to be with her, but I couldn't do it."

In Cassie's dying moments, Calf Looking's doctors allowed him into her room. By that time she was breathing but in a coma.

"I tried to talk to her, but she was unresponsive," Calf Looking said. "In my heart, I believe she heard what I said."

Eventually, Calf Looking got stronger, and his leukemia retreated, once his body began making new blood.

He returned home and visited Cassie's grave and decided to finish out a dream to get his master's degree in organismal biology and ecology in Missoula.

Then one day, a letter arrived from his anonymous donor, inquiring how he was doing. He wrote back, thanking her for the gift she had given him, and a flurry of more exchanges followed.

Following National Marrow Donor Program protocol, they didn't give each other any identifying information for the first year after Calf Looking's transplant.

When the year was up, they both signed releases saying they wanted personal information about one another.

Now, they could call each other by name.

It was then White learned Cassie had died, and that through more blood testing, she was not related to the Calf Looking family.

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But the two found out they are now related to each other.

When a person receives someone else's stem cells, his blood type changes to the donor's type. The change also happens to the DNA in the blood. It's a common occurrence, said Calf Looking's Missoula physician Patrick Beatty.

"I used to be A positive and now I'm O positive, like Deborah," Calf Looking said.

When White was at a blood donor conference, one of the doctors in the audience came up to her after she spoke and said from a medical standpoint, she and Calf Looking are basically twins now.

The news brought the intimate strangers even closer, and in the past two years they sent pictures and have stayed in regular phone and e-mail contact.

"I don't know anyone so brave," White said. "I don't know anyone who has gone through what he has and has known in his heart everything was going to be OK. I think he is an amazing role model for his children."

With Calf Looking's encouragement and support, White found the courage to search for her birth mother, whom she found in New Mexico, and learned that her own brown skin and straight dark hair comes from her Spanish and American Indian ancestors.

Their reunion was wonderful and powerful, White said. And she told her mother: "You have a son in Montana now. He has your blood. It saved his life."

"This whole miracle keeps going and going," she said. "I got a brother and found my mother - what a gift."

On her return trip to California, White, now 49, said she realized for the first time in her life she was truly and deeply content.

"I thought, 'If this plane goes down, I'll be OK. I have a wonderful daughter who is healthy and 21, my dad is OK, I have a wonderful husband, and I have found my family.' "

"I found my family and where I came from - my whole life circle has been completed."

As the sea of black graduation robes begins forming UM's commencement ceremonial march into Dahlberg Arena on Saturday, Calf Looking stands quietly, drinking in the joy and excitement of his fellow graduates.

An eagle feather hangs from his cap and a master's degree hood hangs down his back.

"It's been an incredible journey up to this point," he says. "What Deborah did for me and my family, words cannot express our gratitude.

"Although no one can replace my sister, Deborah fills that void," he says. "She is a sister to me now."

The petite woman with long dark hair winds her way through the lineup and sees Calf Looking.

Their eyes find one another. She reaches him with a tender smile and they fold into a bear hug.

There are no words.

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com

Minority bone marrow donors needed

Although 4.8 million people donate blood each year to bone marrow donor programs, there is a tremendous need for more minority donors.

Each year thousands of American Indians/Alaska Natives, Asian/Pacific Islanders, African Americans and Hispanics are diagnosed with leukemia or other life-threatening diseases. For many their only chance of survival is a marrow or blood stem cell transplant.

Stem cell transplants require matching certain tissue traits of the donor and patient. Because these traits are inherited, a patient's most likely match is another family member. Unfortunately, 70 percent cannot find a match within their own families. They need an unrelated individual willing to donate healthy stem cells.

Matches most often occur among people with similar racial and ethnic groups.

The National Marrow Donor Program is a nonprofit organization that promotes blood donations and assists patients and physicians by finding donor matches.

The program has facilitated more than 14,000 transplants throughout the world for patients with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia and aplastic anemia as well as certain immune system and genetic disorders.

For more information about the program call 1-800-MARROW-2 (1-800-627-7692) or contact the closest donor center, in Spokane, at 1-800-432-0151, Ext. 139.

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