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Teacher donates stem cells to brother battling rare cancer

By BREANNA FRANCIS, The Journal undefined

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — When it was discovered that Berkeley County second-grade teacher Sonja Waters was a 10-out-of-10 stem-cell match for her older brother battling a second bout of rare cancer, Waters said it was without hesitation or fear that she hopped on a plane to North Carolina.

Wilson Youngblood, born and raised in the Eastern Panhandle, who is battling his second bout of cancer, said his fight would have been far less effective had it not been for his sister’s selfless donation of stem cells.

“My sister is an absolute angel and saint. She really trudged through everything with a smile on her face. Let me try to put it into words — she came 15 years later in our family, and she was kind of always known as mom’s angel because of the years that had passed between her and mom’s boys,” Youngblood said. “We were all very close. She’s a wonderful sister, and to have her step up so unselfishly to do what she did, all I can say is she was a gift of God to our family, and, not only was she my mom’s angel, but she is my personal angel, too.”

Youngblood was born in Berkeley Springs in 1957, and, after meeting his high school sweetheart, Debbie, in 1974 and graduating high school in 1976, the pair began working for the Internal Revenue Service and moved to Berkeley County to begin their lives.

Married in 1979, the Youngbloods started their own family with their son, Brandon, who now lives in Florida with his wife, and two sons, and son, Christopher, who is a Berkeley County teacher, along with his wife and has triplet daughters.

With the Youngblood family fast growing, Wilson said he and his wife spent their days enjoying the company of family and friends and found after 35 years of working in the Eastern Panhandle, it was time for retirement. After a visit to North Carolina in 2011, they knew this is where they would spend their retirement.

However, this joyous step into the relaxing years of their lives was marred by the discovery of a type of cancer called multiple myeloma in Youngblood in 2018.

“Fortunately, I was pretty quickly approved for a stem-cell transplant using my own stem cells to try to put the disease into remission,” Youngblood said. “It was successful, and, after an extensive bout of getting my energy and appetite back, I was able to recover.”

Youngblood said, as is procedure, he would make regular visits to his oncologist to ensure the cancer had not returned and was fortunate in receiving a clean bill of health each time until October of 2020.

“Everything was going great until my oncologist told me my counts had sent out a red flag and were dropping tremendously,” Youngblood said. “What that led to was extensive blood work and a bone-marrow biopsy, at which time they found out a combination of the chemotherapy I had received and some heavy-duty maintenance medications had destroyed my DNA and had attacked my chromosomes, which led me into another cancer, an aggressive form of leukemia called MDS. I had to go through a rigorous exam and review to see if I was a candidate for another biopsy and an alarming bit of information came from this that. Even though my first transplant was using my own stem cells, I could not use my own cells this time, because my system had been damaged.”

So began Youngblood’s search for a donor, turning to his brother, sister and two sons for support and help in finding out if any of them could provide him the cells he needed.

“From that moment of hearing my brother had cancer and now had this secondary cancer, I was rather devastated and frightened. He is my older brother, and his form of cancer truly devastated me,” said Waters, who teaches at Spring Mills Primary School. “I felt very paralyzed when he asked if he could speak to my older brother and me on a virtual call, but we all agreed we would go ahead and be tested to see if we could help him conquer this disease.”

Waters said she, along with her nephews and brother, each took a mouth swab test to find out their compatibility, and when their brother and Youngblood’s sons’ tests all came back as a 5-out-of-10 match, both Youngblood and Waters were a bit worried.

“But then I got a phone call from a nurse who said I was a perfect 10-out-of-10 match,” Waters recalled. “Of course, I asked the nurse to explain what that meant, and she said I was what they needed and so I started asking how soon and where do I need to be so can we get this moving quickly, because I was absolutely ready to go to Chapel Hill and help my brother.”

For Youngblood, the news of his sister’s match came while he was on the golf course, when she phoned him and said she was a perfect match.

“I looked to the heavens and gave out a scream of excitement. Needless to say, my golf game didn’t go real well after that,” Youngblood laughed. “I just had to get back home to celebrate with my family. It was so exciting, but it was just the beginning of a long journey for the both of us.”

With the match made, Waters said she made a trip to North Carolina on Valentine’s Day — “convenient because this whole thing is about love” — and on the morning of Feb. 15 was tested further to ensure her stem cells would work.

With the approval to go through with the procedure, the transplant was scheduled and completed on Feb. 26, and, though stressful and exhausting for both parties, Waters and Youngblood both said they felt no fear and had complete trust in the process.

“There was no fear, I had complete trust in this whole process and trust in my faith in God,” Waters said. “I knew, no matter what it takes, I was given the opportunity to provide lifesaving cells to conquer this cancer, and I was going to do just that… so the process didn’t bother me whatsoever.”

Following the surgery, Youngblood said he is doing very well and, while it is not an easy procedure, said he is slowly watching his blood bottom out before his body will begin accepting his sister’s stem cells and start increasing his own, an exhausting process he said will hopefully leave him feeling better than ever.

With her donation made, Waters said she is now just anxiously awaiting her brother’s recovery alongside the rest of their family and is confident this will all be a memory to look back on fondly as he continues to recover.

“There is a 15-year difference between us and to know that really helped make sure I had young, healthy cells to help. I questioned how we are so different in looks, but we are so very much the same on the inside,” Waters said. “I really value the beauty of differences in people and how we all still carry the same blood. To know I could do this for my brother was gratifying and humbling. Now that the donation is complete and the stem cells are working in his body, we are all praying with great hope that these new cells will act as boxers in the ring to take down any unhealthy or diseased cells, and they will counteract any of the ongoing cancer cells, so he has an opportunity to build good blood again and gain strength to overcome and to fight.”