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Cancer patient finds kin, marrow donor at once
One of three lost brothers in Oregon to help Brighton man
By Coleman CorneliusSunday, March 09, 2003 - BRIGHTON - Ron Hawley was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001, and since then has undergone a tortuous series of chemotherapy, remission, recurrence and more chemotherapy. Infections, hospital stays and spinal taps have been part of his grueling illness.
Denver Post Northern Colorado Bureau
Hawley's aggressive cancer of the bone marrow came back in December after a year-long remission. And the 32-year-old Brighton man got grim news from his cancer specialist: Get a bone-marrow transplant as quickly as possible or face sure death.
"He got chemotherapy for Christmas. That's when he was told that the only thing that would help him was a bone-marrow transplant," Ron's wife, Kim, said as he sat quietly nearby with an ashen complexion, his drug-induced baldness hidden under a yellow bandana.
Just when things looked most desperate, Hawley got news that increased his chances for survival - and gave him new reason to live. He found three brothers in Oregon whom he had never seen, and learned that one of the men is a perfect match to be a bone-marrow donor.
"It's a new start. I'm being born again," Hawley said Friday, his eyes bright despite his pallor. "After finding my brothers and a perfect match, I'm on the I'm-going-to-make-it side."
The turn of events was so sudden that Hawley and his family are still stunned.
He learned Feb. 22 that he has three older brothers in western Oregon who, like him, were given up for adoption in the 1970s by a single mother, a migrant farmworker who could not care for her children.
The Oregon brothers were adopted by the same close-knit family and grew up together in that state, while Hawley was born later in Greeley and was adopted by a Fort Lupton couple when he was 9.
Hawley discovered from medical tests Wednesday that one newfound brother, Tracy Boeder, 34, is a perfect donor match.
"This is a closure and a new beginning for all of us," said Boeder, a millwright who lives near Albany, Ore. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help him."
The brothers have been communicating by phone and e-mail - their nerves allayed by the focus on Hawley's illness - and plan to see each other for the first time this month or in early April. That's when Hawley and Boeder will undergo the bone-marrow transplant at University Hospital in Denver.
"It has been very emotional," said Boeder, who researched his history but could never find his biological family. "I've been looking for 12 years. To get all of the blanks filled in, and have all of it dropped in your lap at once, you get excitement, adrenaline, everything."
The three Oregon men not only learned they had a brother they had never seen, but found he was gravely ill. Just three days after learning of Hawley's existence, the Boeder brothers shipped their blood samples to University Hospital to be analyzed for donor potential.
"I was pacing the floor back and forth, wearing a hole in the carpet," John Boeder, 36, a handyman in Albany, Ore., said of the wait. "All we cared about was that one of us could help."
The test results were promising and pointed to Tracy Boeder as the donor whose cellular proteins and DNA most closely match Hawley's. That means the sick man will be less likely to develop complications after the transplant.
With the transplant, Hawley's doctors give him a 30 percent to 40 percent chance for beating leukemia. But even those odds are encouraging, he said.
"I'm not up for dying yet," said Hawley, whose illness forced him to quit work as a tow-truck driver. "We're all on pins and needles to see my brothers and enjoy life and have them participate in it."
As heartening to him as his improved chances, Hawley said, was the response of his brothers when they learned he needed a bone-marrow transplant.
"I was overcome that when Dad asked, they said, 'Sure thing.' They didn't even think about it," he said.
"They didn't even say, 'What does a person going through a bone-marrow transplant have to do?"' said Kim Hawley. "They didn't even ask."
She said she's as excited as her husband about their newfound family, who will add to their Colorado clan of parents, two of Kim Hawley's siblings, three children and a grandson.
When Ron Hawley began pursuing a marrow transplant about two months ago, he soon learned a sibling would be the best donor of the critical cells that could give his immune system the strength to battle and finally defeat bone cancer.
Hawley's father, Richard Hawley of Fort Lupton, said he was determined to find his adopted son's three biological brothers. The Hawleys knew from records that the siblings had been adopted in Oregon, but intermittent attempts to find them earlier had failed.
This time, the elder Hawley, a retired state patrolman, knew that locating the older brothers was a matter of life and death for his only son.
"This kid has gone through hell. I don't think anyone should have to go through what he's gone through," the elder Hawley said as he sat with his son and daughter- in-law in their trailer home in east Brighton.
The adoptive father sought help from the Greeley Tribune, which published a story Feb. 21 about Ron Hawley's quest to find his siblings.
A nonprofit called Emergency Medical Locators quickly seized on the story. The organization conducts free searches and has volunteers scattered around the world. Its volunteers, working primarily with computer databases, e-mail and adoption registries, retrieve data to help adoptees find their birth families during medical emergencies.
It took JoAnne Stanik, a co-founder of Emergency Medical Locators, less than two hours to make the links between Hawley and his brothers using information the sick man's adoptive father provided, including first names, approximate birth dates and adoption locations for the three lost brothers. This information from Hawley, although sketchy, was more than the Boeder clan had ever been able to unearth.
Stanik, of Tucson, said she reached the home of 37-year-old Paul Boeder, the eldest brother, in a single phone call. He also lives near Albany, Ore.
"I cried like a baby," Stanik said. "It gives us a good feeling to know we put a family back together."
Now Ron Hawley and Tracy Boeder face the transplant.
Hawley will undergo a five-day regime of total-body irradiation and chemotherapy to destroy his bone marrow so it can be replaced with marrow cells from Boeder, said Peggy Russell, registered nurse and clinical coordinator of bone-marrow transplants at University.
Boeder will get injections so his body mass produces peripheral stem cells, or young bone marrow cells. As production skyrockets, the critical cells will be pushed from bone to bloodstream, allowing their harvest from blood, a process that's much less painful for the donor than the previous method of drawing bone marrow from the pelvis.
Boeder will undergo two days of collection, when he will be in a lounge chair, as if donating blood, with an IV in each arm. Blood will flow from one arm into a centrifuge, which will extract the stem cells, and back into the other arm.
The stem cells then will be transplanted into Hawley's bloodstream through a catheter, much like a blood transfusion. These young marrow cells will migrate back to bone, where they will mature and reproduce, giving Hawley the new immune system he needs to fight leukemia, Russell said.
During the procedure, the brothers expect to get to know one another, even as Hawley faces complications and months of recovery.
"Family is very important to me," John Boeder said. "If you don't have a family and family roots to go back to, what's our purpose in life? With Ron, I'm expanding my family."