UCR Student Meets the Man Whose Life He Helped to Save

Senior history major Alex Fishburn donated bone marrow that helped Grant Vietor overcome leukemia

men shaking hands

UC Riverside student Alex Fishburn (left) shakes hands with Grant Vietor of Sioux Center, Iowa at L.A./Ontario Airport on March 27, 2013. Fishburn donated bone marrow cells that helped Vietor overcome leukemia. Photo by Konrad Nagy

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — When Grant Vietor and his family arrived at L.A./Ontario Airport on Wednesday, March 27, they were expecting to meet UCR student Alex Fishburn and his family, who would be hosting them during a long weekend visit to Southern California. They weren’t prepared to see the Southwest Airlines baggage claim area filled with dozens of well-wishers holding signs, as well as television cameras from local Los Angeles news stations.

“I thought there was some pop star coming down the stairs, but I guess it was me,” Vietor said, smiling.

Their moment in the spotlight is a result of the common bond that they share – the same blood courses through the veins of both men, thanks to Fishburn’s donation of bone marrow stem cells that helped Vietor, a 46-year-old teacher and coach from Sioux Center, Iowa, overcome life-threatening leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

family holding signs

From left, Isaac, Christien, Moriah and Bonita Vietor of Sioux Center, Iowa, take in the scene. Photo by Konrad Nagy

As his wife Bonita and children Moriah, Isaac and Christien looked on, Grant Vietor walked up to the 22-year-old senior history major from Upland, Calif., shook hands and hugged, sharing a few private words as the crowd around applauded. Meetings between donors and recipients are extremely rare, so although their lives had been intertwined for more than a year, it was the first in-person meeting between the two men and their families.

“A year ago, I was probably going to die. And thanks to him I have life now and am doing great,” Vietor said. “I wanted to make sure that I really thank him and his family for what he has done for me and my family. That’s very important to me. As a teacher and a coach, you are always trying to give back and make good character choices for the kids. This is a great character choice he made right here. It says a lot about our youth.”

For Fishburn, finally getting to meet the man whose life he helped to save brought a bit of reality to what he described as a surreal experience.

“He looks lively and fine, a little bit better than I imagined,” Fishburn said.

Their story began in 2008 when Fishburn registered for the National Bone Marrow Registry. Since less than 1-in-500 potential donors match with patients, he didn’t give it a second thought.

“I never really thought much about it. It was checking a box and signing my name,” he said. “I never really expected for anything to come from me signing up for it.”

Fishburn graduated from Upland High School and began his college career at Citrus Community College in Glendora, finding his “passion” in the study of history, particularly the areas of Colonial America, the Early Modern Period, English philosophy, and the Scottish Enlightenment. He transferred to UCR in the fall of 2011 to earn a degree in history, with long-term goal of going on to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. and to become a professor.

Across the country, Vietor had been diagnosed with leukemia in late 2010. He underwent treatment and went into remission, but in December 2011 the cancer had returned. Vietor was told that he needed a bone marrow transplant.

Back in California, Fishburn got the fateful call from the National Marrow Donor Center. His cells were a perfect match with a 46-year-old man with an aggressive form of leukemia and that he would die without a bone marrow transplant. Without hesitation, Fishburn agreed to donate some six million peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC).

The PBSC donation process is a fairly simple and is conducted in an outpatient setting. Fishburn received five injections of a drug called filgrastim that increased the number of blood-forming cells in the blood stream. Then the donor goes through a process called apheresis, where blood is removed from one arm, the stem cells are removed, and the blood is then returned to the donor. The process lasted just a few hours and he returned to class the next day, while the cells were whisked off to South Dakota to be implanted in Vietor.

“After a few hours I went home and then waited to hear how he was doing. I didn’t know if he was going to die or not – the situation sounded like it was immensely grim,” Fishburn recalled.

On February 14, after several days of intensive chemotherapy that killed the cancerous cells in Vietor’s body, doctors at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, SD, implanted Fishburn’s cells in Vietor. The treatment began the long the process of rebuilding the critical part of his immune system.

The donation worked exactly as planned and, on March 2, 2012, Vietor was able to return to his home to continue his recovery. On June 19th the results of his bone marrow biopsy came back with the news that he was cancer free. He returned to his teaching job in August and, on February 19 2013, a subsequent bone marrow biopsy came back negative as well. While his recovery isn’t over, Vietor was cancer –free.

“As the school year has gone on, I can feel my strength getting better and better,” he said. “It’s baby steps, but I am getting stronger as time goes on. Hopefully I’ll continue to do that.”

Grant Vietor (left) and UCR student Alex Fishburn smile for the cameras during their meeting at L.A./Ontario Airport on March 27. Fishburn provided bone marrow cells that helped Vietor recover from leukemia. Photo by Konrad Nagy

Grant Vietor (left) and UCR student Alex Fishburn smile for the cameras during their meeting at L.A./Ontario Airport on March 27. Fishburn provided bone marrow cells that helped Vietor recover from leukemia. Photo by Konrad Nagy

Though the donation process is anonymous, organizations like LifeStream of San Bernardino and The National Marrow Donor Program will often connect donors and recipients if both parties agree. The Vietors reached out to the Fishburn family in January, 2013, first by email, then over the phone. Bonita and Alex’s mother, Beverly, hit it off and soon there were plans for the Vietors to come to California for a visit.

Over the long weekend, the families will take in a baseball game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim and will visit the beach for a taste of “sunny Southern California” – a far cry from the snowy, 22-degree weather the Vietor’s left behind in Iowa. And perhaps more importantly, Vietor and Fishburn will have the opportunity to sit down and talk, away from the cameras and noise.

“I excited to meet him, to get to know him and his family,” Fishburn said.

“It’s very important for me to get to know Alex, and I will know him as long as I live,” Vietor agreed. “It’s just amazing that we have come together this way. It’s going to be great to get to know him.”

While he acknowledges an important role in the process, Fishburn is quick to point out that he does not consider himself to be a hero.

“I appreciate that compliment, but I think I am quite far from a hero in this situation,” he said. “I think the people who are the most heroic are the ones that take their time and devote their lives to developing the technology and putting the forethought and thoughtfulness into it, rather than someone who checked a box and happened to be lucky.”

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