<ro>"Everyone thinks it’s such a heroic thing to do. I didn’t do anything that most people wouldn’t do."
<ro1>— Andrew Friedson, Churchill ‘04
<ro1>"It seems like he was sent to me. … We’re blood brothers and we’re together forever."
<ro1>— Buddy Kamin, stem cell recipient, Victoria, Texas
<hd>A Texas-Style Thank-You for Friedson
<1b>By Alex Scofield
What are the odds that Andrew Friedson would come to save the life of Buddy Kamin, a man in Texas who was dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?
Were they 1 in 1,000? Those were roughly the chances of becoming a donor, as explained to Friedson, a 2004 graduate of Winston Churchill High School, when he donated blood to join the National Marrow Donors Program registry in the spring semester of his freshman year at the University of Maryland.
But were they really that high? Would Friedson have stopped to donate if he hadn't run into a Churchill classmate who was helping run the marrow donor drive on that day in March 2005? Would he have stuck around if she hadn’t led Friedson go to the front of the line?
Friedson isn’t ready to speculate as to whether the whole thing was fated. What he knows for certain, though, is that each step is linked by the most fragile of threads.
"Everything is about opportunity and happenstance and coincidence," Friedson said. "Everything is dependent on so many little things."
Nothing about the peripheral blood stem cell donation process felt especially heroic to Friedson. It's uncomfortable, and causes some nausea and headaches, but, Friedson said, anybody else would have done it if they knew they were saving a person’s life.
"Here I am, a 21-year-old kid," said Friedson, "and I am literally flowing inside of a now 57-year-old man who’s lived his entire life in Victoria, Texas."
"It seems like he was sent to me," Kamin said. "We’re blood brothers and we’re together forever."
FRIEDSON WAS IN Maryland’s student union at the beginning of his freshman spring semester two years ago. He ran into a Churchill classmate he hadn’t seen in awhile. She was helping work a bone marrow drive.
"I’d love to support it, but I only have 15 minutes," Friedson told her. "If you can put me to the front of the line …"
Done. They asked Friedson a half-dozen questions or so, had him sign a form, then pricked his finger and took a blood sample. Friedson was now part of the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. He later received a card in the mail confirming his donation. The card said there was a roughly 1 in 200 chance that a donor will get called at some time in his life for being a preliminary match.
"They put you on a registry for your tissue type," said Friedson, "for people who have exhausted all other options."
Kamin was that person. A businessman whose family runs a furniture store in Victoria, Kamin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2005. He’d undergone chemotherapy and radiation before a doctor recommended his consider a stem cell transplant.
SIX MONTHS AFTER he’d joined the registry, Friedson received a call from the National Marrow Donor Program, informing him that he was a preliminary match.
"I don’t know what that means, but yeah," Friedson said. Essentially, it meant that Friedson was asked to come in for more extensive blood work, and that there was about a 1 in 5 chance that a preliminary match is a true match.
Confidentiality rules prevent a donor from finding out any personal information about the recipient, or vice versa, until a year after the transplant. As to whether they ever contact one another, "It depends on the donor center, and also the patient’s and donor’s wishes," said Lee Hayes, a spokesperson for the National Marrow Donor Program.
When Friedson learned that he was an exact match, he knew nothing about Kamin or his illness, only that there was a recipient in need of healthy blood-forming cells.
FRIEDSON DONATED HIS stem cells in March 2006. He had the option to provide marrow — a surgical procedure in which marrow is removed from the doctor’s pelvic bone. Friedson opted instead for a peripheral blood stem cell donation. In this procedure, blood-producing stem cells are separated from the plasma and removed from the donor’s bloodstream. "Your entire bloodstream comes out, and your entire bloodstream comes back in," Friedson said.
For five days, Friedson received daily injections of filgrastim, which drives up the donor’s stem cell count.
"[It was] nothing terrible, but it’s unnatural," Friedson said. ["There’s some nausea involved, and you get headaches. … It’s certainly uncomfortable [but] it’s nothing you can’t deal with." Friedson, in fact, continued going to classes and to his internship with Maryland Delegate Brian Feldman (D-15).
After five days of filgrastim injections, with his stem cell count roughly five times higher than usual, Friedson was set for the stem cell collection process. He was hooked up to an IV in one arm and a catheter in the other arm. His blood was pumped out 12 ounces at a time.
"I was just exhausted," Friedson said. "All of a sudden you’ve gone through this wildly unnatural process as far as your body’s concerned … and you can feel that."
Two months later, Friedson received a call from the Marrow Donors Program. They needed more cells. "That’s usually a good sign," Friedson said. If the recipient doesn’t react well to the donor’s cells, they often don’t live.
In Kamin’s case, however, the initial infusions didn’t take, and his cancer had grown aggressively. They needed to go back and retrieve more cells from Friedson.
The second infusion was successful. Kamin knew from the get-go that he wanted to meet the donor, but also knew that he had to wait a year before he had the chance to do so.
"I constantly laid there and marked the days, like the Birdman of Alcatraz," Kamin said.
IN THE MEANTIME, Friedson launched an ultimately successful campaign for Maryland’s student government presidency. The call came last March, on a morning after Friedson had slept for half an hour. "I was engulfed in the campaign," he said, and this was one of the most stressful stretches.
A woman from the National Marrow Donor Program told Friedson it had been exactly a year since he’d donated his stem cells. The recipient wanted to meet him and speak on the phone — if Friedson wanted to be contacted, he had to fax over his consent form.
The initial faxes that both donor and recipient send are consent forms. The one Friedson received was nearly illegible; Kamin was shaking from the emotion as he wrote it. His wife called to relay what it said.
"I skipped the beginning of the class, because it just didn’t matter at this point," Friedson said. "It certainly changed my day. … I can’t say I wasn’t stressed out [but] it does give you a lot of perspective."
Kamin said he felt too emotional to speak to Friedson earlier in the day. "Later that night he called me and we spoke for an hour," Friedson said. "He was crying, I ended up crying."
Coincidences, if that’s what they were, immediately became apparent. Friedson’s maternal grandfather was named Martin Cohen, but "everyone in the world called him Buddy," Friedson said. The grandson of Morton "Buddy" Cohen had donated stem cells to M.C. "Buddy" Kamin.
The families also had their Jewish heritage in common, and there were Cohens several generations back in Kamin’s family. And Andrew Friedson had the same birthday as Kamin’s father.
"The hospital has had some coincidences with donors, but they’d never had one like this," Kamin said.
Kamin sent flowers to the Friedsons on Passover. He said that because of Andrew, he was able to celebrate Passover with his family for the first time in years.
But Kamin didn’t want to see a picture of Friedson until they met in person. His cancer went into remission late last year, and it has been in remission since then.
LATE LAST MONTH, the Friedsons — parents John and Leslie, and siblings Michelle, 27; Craig, 25; Matthew, 23 and Andrew — flew to Texas to meet Kamin and his family for the first time.
"The first day we got there was really intense," Friedson said. While the rest of the Friedsons met Kamin’s wife Gormeen, Andrew and Buddy spoke in private for more than an hour.
In the preceding year, Kamin had thought often about what the donor might be like. Among Friedson's characteristics that stood out was the charisma that helped him win student government elections in middle school, high school and college. "He knows no strangers at all," Kamin said. "He just has this lasting impression on you."
The entire Friedson family made a similar impression on the Kamins.
"When we first met them, it was like we’d known them all our lives," Kamin said. "I could say truly no one could wish for a better family."
After the intensity of the initial meeting, it was time to celebrate. The Friedsons received a giant gulp of Texas flavor — trips to a legendary barbecue restaurant, an equally legendary jerky store, and an authentic Tex-Mex meal. "We just weren’t going to have a cup of tea or that kind of deal," Kamin said. "We fed them a little bit of food."
"He threw a party that evening for all of his friends," said Friedson. About 120 people attended, and Friedson hardly ate anything – two shrimp and a quail leg was all he had time to scarf down.
The sheer number of people celebrating spelled out to the Friedsons how many people were affected.
"Everyone thinks it’s just about saving someone’s life," Friedson said. "You don’t just donate to one person. You donate to an entire family."
Kamin couldn’t help but notice how much the Friedson males could put away at the dinner table — even a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye steak. "That thing took up the whole platter," Kamin said. "These people ate like there’s not tomorrow," Kamin said, wondering if, as Marylanders, they eat too much lightweight fare like crab cakes. "They don’t get a good, heavy meal."
FRIEDSON HAS NOW SEEN the impact his stem cell donation had. He’s met the man whose life he saved, and celebrated Kamin’s second chance on life with dozens of his friends and family members.
"Everyone thinks it’s such a heroic thing to do," Friedson said. "I didn’t do anything that most people wouldn’t do. … I don’t know of many people who would say no."
Kamin disagrees. "I think he’s too young to really understand what he’s really, really done," Kamin said. "It’s an incredible commitment for a 20-year-old to do; I don’t care how anyone looks at it. … You’ve got to be disciplined to go in."
Kamin has said over the recent months that he now has a new son in Andrew, and an extended family in the Friedsons.
"If all goes well, we’re going to come [to Maryland] for Thanksgiving time," Kamin said. "As fast as these days and weeks passed, we’ll be there before you know it."