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Almost 28 months after getting her bone marrow, Samuel McGough, 10, of Hartselle met his donor, Teresa Best, on Thursday at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. Transplant Coordinator Melissa Wallace, left, and Samuel’s parents, Rob and Julie McGough, watched as the two embraced.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Almost 28 months after getting her bone marrow, Samuel McGough, 10, of Hartselle met his donor, Teresa Best, on Thursday at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. Transplant Coordinator Melissa Wallace, left, and Samuel’s parents, Rob and Julie McGough, watched as the two embraced.

Samuel’s hero
Hartselle bone marrow recipient meets his donor

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2469

BIRMINGHAM — Standing in the lobby at Children’s Hospital on Thursday, Samuel McGough clutched tightly to his parents.

If given a choice, he probably would have preferred being on a youth baseball field. But this was the day he would meet the person he calls his hero, the woman whose bone marrow saved his life.

“There she is,” he whispered as Teresa Best stepped around the corner at about 1:20 p.m. with her arms extended.

“There’s our hero,” Samuel’s father, Rob McGough, said. “She’s the woman that saved my son’s life. It’s no different than someone saving a child from drowning or from a burning house. Without her help, Sam may have died.”

Meeting his donor

Almost 28 months after doctors gave Samuel the bone marrow that replaced his failing immune system, the 10-year-old Hartselle boy met his donor in a ceremony that attracted doctors, nurses and people who were just curious about what was happening.

For the McGoughs, it was the opportunity to put a face with the person they had known for almost two years as a woman from Alaska.

A nursing student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Best had forgotten about joining until the registry called in January 2004. She wasn’t a match for that patient.

In October 2004, she received a second call. The call came four hours after she had awakened from a dream.

A match confirmed

“I was in a white room, on a white folding table talking on the telephone with someone from the registry,” she said about the dream. “I told them I knew I would be a match this time.”

A month later, the registry confirmed that Best was a match for Samuel.

She gave bone marrow from her hip at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.

Almost a year after Best added her name to the national registry, Samuel’s journey from what his parents called sorrow to normalcy started when doctors discovered that he had malformed white blood cells with two nuclei.

The normal white blood cell count is between 5,000 and 9,000. Samuel’s count at birth was 4,500. Before his transplant, the count declined each year and was as low as 450.

Although doctors at some of the world’s leading research centers treated him, they could not give his parents a diagnosis.

His parents tried to let him live as normal a life as possible, but this meant home schooling for Samuel and his two brothers because a simple cold could have killed him.

Outwardly normal

Outwardly, Samuel looked OK as his parents allowed him to play on two T-ball teams in Decatur and soccer in Hartselle. Behind the scenes, the family hematologist was trying as early as 2002 to convince the McGoughs that Samuel needed a transplant.

Samuel’s parents said they didn’t worry because he “looked normal.”

After a 2004 visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., things started to go wrong. Samuel had the largest drop in his white blood cell count since birth.

One month after an ear infection swelled his left ear shut in July 2004, the McGoughs decided to move forward with the transplant.

Doctors turned to the National Bone Marrow Registry after his parents and two brothers were not matches. There were 50 matches.

Samuel checked into Children’s Hospital on Dec. 1, 2004, and started taking chemotherapy to wipe out what was left of his immune system.

Meanwhile, doctors were prepping Best. The bone marrow arrived at University Hospital in Birmingham on Dec. 8, 2004, at about 3 p.m. Doctors there screened and prepared the bone marrow for Samuel.

At about 1 p.m. on Dec. 9, the donated bone marrow that gave Samuel his second life started dripping into his body. All the McGoughs knew about Best at the time is that she was a 27-year-old woman.

The marrow started grafting on day 17, but Samuel’s struggle wasn’t over. His progress was so remarkable that doctors allowed him to leave the stem cell unit.

Signs of rejection

In January 2005, he was at the hospital for his outpatient visit when doctors saw rashes on his stomach, arms and hands. These are sign of rejection.

“Sam was taking his (anti-rejection) medication by mouth and he was apparently not getting all of it down,” his mother said.

Doctors inserted a tube in his nose and his parents dispensed medication through it. The setback caused a lung infection, which left permanent damage.

The hospital continued to monitor Samuel until he was released as a stem unit patient in January. The McGoughs had their first communication with the donor in March 2006.

As Children’s Hospital prepared for its 2007 blood and marrow donor drive, the hospital decided to bring Best and the McGoughs together.

“We have always wanted to meet her, but we didn’t know when it would happen because of cost,” Rob said.

Dr. Tom Howard, the hematologist who diagnosed Samuel when he was an infant, and Dr. Sandya Kharbanda, transplant doctor, were at the hospital on Thursday.

“Sam was a very unusual patient,” Dr. Howard said. “He slowly lost his immune system, but we’re here today because of the courage of him, his parents and his donor.”

“His immune is functioning fine,” Dr. Kharbanda said. “I’m very happy for Sam.”

Best will spend the weekend in Hartselle with the McGoughs and is looking forward to watching Samuel play youth baseball.

She left her name on the national registry and encourages others to do so.

“People should go sign up,” she said. “The best feeling you can have is to help someone out like this.

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