Transplant recipient finally gets chance to meet donor
CHAMPAIGN - Ever since he recovered from the bone marrow transplant that saved his life, Ryan Grumish had wondered about the man who donated it.
What did he look like? What were his interests? Did he resemble Grumish at all, or sound like him?
Even Kevin Franzen's name was unknown to Grumish, a 19-year-old Parkland College student and leukemia survivor, until the two connected through a national bone marrow registry last fall. They've had several stilted conversations since then, but on Friday night Grumish got to meet Franzen, and thank him in person, for the first time.
Grumish, 19, and his parents, Judy and David Grumish of Champaign, plus a brother, sister and grandfather, traveled to Carbondale for a surprise visit to Franzen's graduation ceremony at Southern Illinois University.
Judy Grumish said the family's nerves were jumping at the prospect of meeting the man who saved their Ryan's life.
"I was crying before I got down the steps to meet him and then I just grabbed him. It was so emotional. Ryan and Kevin hugged; they laughed. It was just great," Judy said. "I just wish I would've brought more Kleenex."
Ryan said the meeting was all he hoped it would be.
"I feel like I'm related to him now. I know we'll keep in touch," he said.
Grumish and his mom, a talkative pair, had thought for months about what they'd say to Franzen when they finally met. But they couldn't quite find the words to cover so many emotions. Ryan tried to prepare something ahead of time, but "it just wasn't working for me."
Franzen was aware that the university might recognize his actions but had no idea the Grumishes would be there. SIU officials did single out Franzen for his deeds during the graduation.
At the time, David Grumish was negotiating for room to take a picture of Franzen when he encountered another man trying to take Franzen's picture. Judy Grumish said her husband asked the man if he knew Kevin, and the man said, "Yeah, he's my son."
Franzen made his life-saving decision nearly eight years ago, long before he'd ever heard Ryan Grumish's name.
Franzen was 18 and serving in the Navy as a hospital corpsman, a sort of EMT/nurse. He and other classmates at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago agreed to sign up for a national bone marrow registry - in part because the instructor said he'd let class out early if everyone signed on.
"They said the odds of matching were so slim, I actually didn't think it would ever happen," Franzen recalled this week.
After his military service, the LaGrange native enrolled at SIU. In January 2001, he got a call he never expected, telling him he was a preliminary match for someone desperately in need of a bone marrow transplant.
That someone was Grumish, then a junior at Champaign Central High School, who'd been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called acute biphenotypic leukemia. Doctors weren't sure how to treat it, telling Grumish and his family that they'd use experimental treatments to try to bring about remission.
He went to St. Louis Children's Hospital for chemotherapy, and the cancer went into remission by mid-February. But doctors said it would return unless Grumish had a bone marrow transplant.
Doctors had tested for sibling matches with Ryan's brother, Eric, and two sisters, Renee and Emily. But no one matched, and he was placed on the national registry.
Franzen, meanwhile, had agreed to go to Georgetown University Medical Center, which works with military bone marrow donors, for further tests to see if he was a proper match.
"I figured it'd be a nice thing to do," said Franzen, who shrugs off any "hero" label. "What would I want if I were in that situation, or one of my family members?"
Four days after returning to Carbondale, Franzen learned he was an exact match. On April 12, 2001, he donated his marrow, and it was flown to St. Louis. That same day, Grumish underwent the four-hour procedure that would save his life.
Grumish said he didn't think much about the donor at the time, seeing the transplant as one of many medical procedures he had to endure.
"It was just like another blood transfusion to me, except it's really thick," he said.
But he grew more curious as time went on. "I wanted to know what he looked like, and I wanted to know what his interests were. You expect somebody that matches you that well to look like you or sound like you."
After being cancer-free for a year, Grumish filled out the paperwork to learn the donor's identity in April 2002. The bone marrow registry requires all patients to wait a year before trying to contact a donor.
At first, Franzen was hesitant to give up his anonymity, not knowing what to expect. But then he learned how desperately the Grumishes wanted to contact him. Family members and friends sent him an outpouring of thank-you cards through the registry, even before they knew his name.
So Franzen signed the paperwork, and Grumish learned his identity last August. Grumish waited a month before working up his nerve, which along with the insistence of his girlfriend, enabled him to call Franzen.
"It was awkward, because I didn't really know what to say," Franzen said.
They talked about school, and families, and what they wanted to do after college. Franzen is applying to film school in Los Angeles, while Grumish hopes to become a doctor, perhaps an oncologist.
Grumish was also curious about what Franzen had gone through to donate the marrow. Franzen explained that he was placed under general anesthesia, and doctors made an incision in his hip to take out the marrow from several places in his bone. He'd seen similar procedures when he was in the military, so he wasn't afraid. The only side effects were a week of fatigue and some pain in his hip.
"Overall, it was fine," he said. "It seems like a big deal, but I think in the end the rewards are worth it."
Franzen has not sought the limelight, telling only close friends about his donation. He finds the media attention "a little odd." But he agreed to talk about his experience to urge others to get on the National Marrow Donor Program registry. At any given time, more than 3,000 patients are awaiting a match.
The family has extended several invitations for Franzen to come to Champaign - for Ryan's 19th birthday last fall, the Light the Night Walk to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in September. But nothing worked out until Friday night.
Judy Grumish collected a number of graduation gifts for Franzen - a collage of pictures of Ryan growing up with Franzen's picture in the center, a piggy bank to help his "wheels fund," packages of LifeSavers candy and Hershey's Hugs and Kisses chocolates from her two daughters, and a copy of a certificate signed by the mayors of Champaign and Urbana dedicating April 12, 2003, as a day of awareness for cancer and bone marrow donation.
And even though she's thanked Franzen profusely on the phone - "he probably realized I'm a kooky mom" - Grumish said it's hard to find the words to convey what Franzen's act means to her family.
"It's amazing someone would do that for a complete stranger," she said. "Thank goodness, thank goodness he did it. He saved my son's life. He gave Ryan a second chance."
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at email@example.com.