“How do you ever express your feelings for this young man who has no idea who you are and who has saved your life?” Lori Ponder asks.
Lori got the chance to find out on May 13, 2022 at the 21st annual Partners in Hope Reunion, which brings together the patients, families and caregivers who’ve been part of The Jewish Hospital – Mercy Health Cincinnati Cancer and Cellular Therapy Center.
Lori was shocked when she was surprised on stage by Tyler Samoska, 26, an Air Force aircraft mechanic from Las Vegas, Nev. Tyler was Lori’s bone marrow donor. While they’d exchanged emails, they hadn’t had the chance to meet in person yet.
Four years earlier, Tyler had swabbed his cheek to register with the Be The Match national bone marrow donor program.
“I like helping people,” Tyler shares. “I figured if there’s a chance where I could help save someone’s life and help them stay connected to their family, I should register.”
His decision would help Lori, 61, move forward from a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a type of blood cancer that occurs when the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal.
“I was not feeling poorly or anything that I thought was out of the ordinary,” Lori recalls when looking back on the time before her diagnosis. “Sometimes felt fatigued and out of breath, but I put it down to life and needing to lose weight.”
However, routine blood work ordered as part of a wellness visit with her new primary care provider uncovered something else.
“Compared to blood work I had in July of 2020, my numbers of red and white blood cells and platelets had dropped,” Lori explains. “My doctor wanted to run additional tests and referred me to a hematologist. I saw the hematologist in late October of 2020, and she took 28 tubes of blood. They made a follow up appointment for me 10 days later. Then, the office called and said they wanted to see me three days earlier than planned. When you’ve been through health issues before, you know something is up and it’s not going to be good news.”
Lori’s intuition was right. She’d been diagnosed and successfully treated for breast cancer back in 2003. Now, 17 years later, she would learn that she’d developed MDS as a result of her breast cancer treatment.
“It was such a drastic diagnosis and not what I was expecting to hear,” Lori says. “I was at high risk of developing leukemia and they wanted me to start chemotherapy right away to keep that in check. The hematologist said she was referring me to Dr. Essell. I started chemo on Nov. 9. I saw Dr. Essell on Nov. 10 and that got the ball rolling to find a donor for me.”
OHC oncologist, hematologist, blood and marrow transplant specialist and cellular therapy expert James H. Essell, MD is the medical director of our Cincinnati Cancer and Cellular Therapy Center. He leads the city’s most experienced adult blood cancer care team and they got to work finding a donor for Lori right away.
According to Be The Match, the best marrow transplant outcomes happen when a patient’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) and the HLA of a registry member or cord blood unit closely match.
“They tested my son and he was an 8/12 match. Then they came across a donor from the United States who was a 12/12 match,” Lori says. “What a miracle!”
That match was Tyler, who was willing to serve as Lori’s donor. Things started to move quickly.
“In November, they matched me with Lori,” Tyler recalls. “Once we got the green light to proceed, we went from communication about the match in November to the donation in early January. I went to San Diego to harvest my cells. It was very informative, and everybody was appreciative of what I was doing. They took good care of me and my wife.”
In the meantime, Lori prepared for her transplant by finishing her second round of chemotherapy in early December before she was admitted to Mercy Health Cincinnati Cancer and Cellular Therapy Center on Jan. 19, 2021. There she completed additional chemotherapy before her Jan. 25 bone marrow transplant.
“That day was incredible. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I was only allowed one visitor per day,” Lori says. “The morning of my transplant, I look out my hospital window and I see family members and friends holding signs of encouragement and love. My husband was by my side, holding my hand, while I received my transplant.”
Following her transplant, Lori spent 32 days in the hospital. Some of those days – and the ones afterward – were very trying.
“You get through it,” she shares. “You have a goal and you work towards that goal. I was discharged on Feb. 19 and came home. My husband took care of me for months. It was not easy. From the beginning they tell you it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Well guess what? They were right. I’m so lucky I have such a great support system with family and friends. I was well taken care of.”
Lori also notes that her employer was fantastic in accommodating her through chemotherapy and her transplant. She was able to starting working remotely again in late August of 2021 and was pleased when she got the OK from Dr. Essell to attend a production by the Cincinnati Ballet with a masked audience in February of 2022.
“It was my first big outing since I was diagnosed,” she shares. “I have now gone back to work two days a week. It’s nice to be back in the swing of seeing people. I wish I could go out and do things, but I am still very protective with mask-wearing and other precautions and try to be sensible. I got my last round of childhood vaccines on April 19 – that was a milestone – and I’ve had three COVID-19 shots.”
Lori notes that she’s 90 to 95 percent back to feeling like herself and that she was looking forward to what’s next. At top of her list? Meeting Tyler.
Just before the Partners in Hope Reunion, Lori shared, “Tyler and I have exchanged many emails since we were put in touch just after I passed my one-year transplant anniversary. I am so grateful that he is willing to communicate with me. We’ve exchanged information about our families, and I say thank you all the time. I would really love to meet Tyler and my hope is that later this year, we get to meet in person.”
The Jewish Hospital helped make that wish come true. Tyler, too, had looked forward to the opportunity to see Lori in person and was happy to be part of the surprise meeting that took place at the Partners in Hope Reunion.
“I was excited to come to Cincinnati,” Tyler adds. “I didn’t know if Lori would recognize me since I had on a hat and a hoodie in the photo she’s seen.”
As for how he feels about the experience of donating his bone marrow, Tyler says, “I’m happy about the whole process. My wife is proud of me. If you can get the chance to save someone’s life, there’s no point in not doing it and that’s something my wife would say as well.”
Lori and her family are thankful Tyler made the decision to register with Be The Match.
“As difficult as this journey has been, how lucky and fortunate I am that there was someone to save my life,” Lori says. “I have so many things I still want to do. I love to travel, spend time with family and friends and I am thankful just to be able to get older. Because of Tyler I now have the chance to do that.”
For information on joining the Be The Match registry, visit their website.