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The timeless gift of time

An unassuming stranger’s marrow donation saves an Ayer girl’s life

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By Bella English
Globe Staff / July 31, 2010

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AYER — In 1990, Janet Fisher was giving blood in her small English town 250 miles north of London. The blood bank was also asking people to register as bone marrow donors. Fisher signed up and then forgot about it. Fifteen years later she got a phone call from the donor bank: Fisher was a perfect match for someone who desperately needed her marrow. Would she do it?

Fisher was 39, married now, with a 5-year-old son. She didn’t hesitate. “You know there’s no other hope when you give bone marrow,’’ she says.

Three thousand miles away, 10-year-old Lindsey Kimball of Ayer had been battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia, enduring long hospitalizations, spinal taps, and two years of chemotherapy, before finally going into remission. To celebrate, the family took a trip to Hawaii. A year later the cancer came back.

A bone marrow transplant was her only chance. Her family and friends were not matches. In fact, no match was found among donors registered in the United States. But the international database, which has 14.5 million donors, found one perfect match: Janet Fisher.

The transplant was a success, and Lindsey’s family desperately wanted to meet the person who had saved her life. A week ago, on the fifth anniversary of Lindsey’s remission, donor and recipient met at a surprise party thrown by the girl’s family. There was a disc jockey, catered food, and a big sign under the basketball goal: “Thanks, Janet!’’

To the tune of Mariah Carey’s “Hero,’’ Lindsey Kimball and Janet Fisher were introduced and exchanged hugs. “I can’t thank you enough, because without you I wouldn’t be here,’’ said Lindsey, now 15.

A blushing Fisher blinked back tears. “You look fantastic!’’

But really, Fisher said as people thanked her again and again, she hadn’t done anything extraordinary. “Being typically British, it’s overwhelming for me,’’ she said. “I don’t know how to respond say when people say I’m a hero.’’

Compared with what Lindsey has been through, Fisher says, her part was minimal. Under general anesthesia, she had two holes drilled in the back of her pelvis and the marrow was extracted. She stayed overnight in the hospital and was sore for a few days. “Childbirth is definitely worse,’’ she said, as her 10-year-old son splashed in the pool at the party.

On July 22, 2005, Lindsey had the transplant at Children’s Hospital. She’d gone in with O-positive blood and left 45 days later with A-positive blood, thanks to Fisher. For a year after the transplant, she had to live in isolation because her immune system was so weak. Her elementary school put a video camera in the classroom, attached a headset to the teacher, and put a webcam on Lindsey’s computer to create a virtual classroom.

Lindsey suffered a setback last year. Because of all the medical treatment since age 7, she had an enlarged heart and underwent open-heart surgery. The chemotherapy and radiation have also stunted her growth: Lindsey is 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 85 pounds.

Still, her spirit has remained intact. She’s riding in the 50-mile teen cycling event next weekend as part of the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, which since 1980 has raised $270 million for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She’s cycling with what she calls her second family, Dennis Tulimieri and his four grandchildren. For the past six years, Tulimieri, has been Lindsey’s “pedal partner,’’ riding the PMC in her name. This year she’ll ride along on the Trek he bought her.

The party was a culmination of a four-year search for the donor by Lindsey’s mother, Dawn Heinle-Kimball.

Last year, there were about 10,000 “stranger’’ matches worldwide. Fisher and Lindsey shared 12 out of 12 antigen markers, which reduce the risk of rejection and graft against host disease. Such cases are often called “perfect matches,’’ but the only true genetic match is between identical twins.

“Since a lot of Americans are ethnically derived from western Europeans, we tend to find donors among them,’’ says Dr. Joseph Antin, chief of stem cell transplants at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Once a match is found, the local registry must confirm that the donor is still healthy and willing to donate. More tests are performed to confirm whether the tissue will match.

After a transplant, recipients and donors in the United States must wait at least a year to learn the other person’s identity, and permission from both sides is required. But England has stricter rules to ensure that the patient is in remission before information is shared. Though Lindsey and her family were able to send cards and letters in care of the registry, it wasn’t until last year that they learned who the donor was.

Meanwhile, Fisher was wondering who had gotten her marrow. She guessed it was a child, because she’d given just under two pints of her marrow and an adult male needs four pints. (Adults have an average of 10 pints of blood.) And she’d seen a Boston label on the shipping carton.

Finally, last year, both identities were revealed and they were able to speak on the phone. Heinle-Kimball thanked Fisher profusely and told her about Lindsey.

“This woman’s blood is flowing through my daughter’s body,’’ says Heinle-Kimball, who is a bookkeeper at Ayer District Court. “She gave us the best gift anyone could possibly give us. I consider her a second mother to Lindsey.’’

Lindsey, who will be a sophomore at Ayer High School, wears a Pan-Mass. Challenge necklace and a bracelet with an “L’’ and a heart charm given to her by Fisher. She hopes to be a pediatric oncologist someday.

Her mother had also invited another special guest to the party: Denise Mallen of Saugus. Three years ago, after suffering congestive heart failure, Mallen had a heart transplant. The donor: Heinle-Kimball’s mother, who had died of an aneurysm on Mother’s Day. After what Lindsey had been through, the whole family years ago had signed donor cards.

Last Saturday, Mallen met the family for the first time.

“Janet gave a gift to Lindsey and in a way, I was a beneficiary of that pay-it-forward cycle,’’ said Mallen. “It’s one of the last acts of charity and one of the great acts of charity on this earth.’’

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.