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Florida bone marrow donor helps Illinois man

Bone marrow recipient Thomas Yepsen his wife Sheilwalk down stairs meet his bone marrow donor PatriciMcElhone. McElhone meets Thomas Yepsen

Bone marrow recipient Thomas Yepsen and his wife Sheila walk down stairs to meet his bone marrow donor, Patricia McElhone. McElhone meets Thomas Yepsen, whose life was saved by her donation, for the first time at Loyola University Medical Center’s annual Bone Marrow Transplant Celebration of Survivorship at the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center on Sunday, September 11, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:16AM

After an 18-year-battle with cancer, Thomas Yepsen’s best hope for survival was a Florida schoolteacher and mother of two whom he had never met.

Patricia McElhone had forgotten that five years before, she had registered as a bone marrow donor. It was to help her husband, who ultimately survived his illness without a bone marrow donation from her.

Now someone else, a total stranger, needed her help, and she didn’t hesitate.

“There was not really a question that I wouldn’t do it,” the St. Augustine, Fla., resident said Sunday after meeting Yepsen for the first time at Loyola University Medical Center.

“My husband had been ill years earlier and people had been very, very good to me. It was kind of my turn, my way of giving back to people who did a lot of things for us.”

It was a long shot that paid off for Yepsen, a 59-year-old man from LaSalle, who was suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system’s white blood cells. First diagnosed in 1993, Yepsen went into remission after chemotherapy.

But the cancer came back in 2006. And then it came back again, leaving only a bone marrow transplant as the best option.

However, there were only two matches for Yepsen out of 9 million registered donors, and one of them was not available.

“When we select donors for possible matches, we usually select four or five, and we’re lucky if two of them even consent to giving blood, so when we see one potential donor, we usually say this is not going to happen,” said Yepsen’s physician, Dr. Patrick Stiff.

Even if the donor agrees to further testing, “I would say that 20 percent of the time the donor fails the evaluation and then we have to move on to something else,” Stiff said.

But McElhone did turn out to be a perfect match, and Yepsen “breezed through” the transplant process and is now essentially cured.

For her part, McElhone spent the night at a local hospital, was put under general anesthesia and her marrow was drawn out of her back with a needle.

She missed four days of work, was sore for a week and sported bruises for a time after that. “But I would do it again if I was called,” she said.

When the two finally met at Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center in Maywood, they hugged.

“I said, ‘Thank you.’ It doesn’t sound like enough, but that’s all you can say,” said Yepsen.

Yepsen also gave McElhone a gold chain with a cherubic angel.

“I wouldn’t be alive if she wasn’t my guardian angel.”

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