Deeper than bone

Men from Oregon, Germany have tie that began with a marrow transplant

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- This month, Jerry Condit met the only man in the world who could have saved -- and did save-- his life.

Condit needed a stem cell transplant to replace bone marrow lost to leukemia, a blood-attacking cancer diagnosed in January 2008 on his 69th birthday.

Doctors estimated he had two years to live if it went untreated. But finding a suitable donor was difficult. The National Marrow Donor Program says only about half of the people in need of transplants ever find a donor.

After searching national and international registries of millions of potential donors, doctors found only one match: Marco Rixen, 34, of Germany.

"He matched 11 of the 12 markers they were looking for," said Condit's wife, Jan. It was enough.

The transplant was performed in May 2008 at OHSU Hospital in Portland. Rixen made his donation at a medical center in Germany, and a courier rushed the stem cells to a plane bound for Portland. Less than 36 hours later, Condit's transfusion was under way.

For the first two years after the transplant, Condit and Rixen could communicate only through the bone marrow donation agency. After that, names and email addresses were released.

The two kept in touch, and one day the Condits got a message from Rixen that said he was planning a vacation to the United States.

"I didn't know if I would ever get the chance to meet him," said Condit, who can't travel because of his vulnerable immune system. "He wrote us and said he was coming here and we just about fell over."

Rixen and his wife, Anja, spent Sept. 19 with the Condits in Grants Pass before heading to Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows in front of an Elvis impersonator and then visit the Grand Canyon. Wearing their "Thanks Marco" T-shirts, the Condits were excited to meet the man who had saved Jerry Condit's life.

Rixen joined the bone marrow donation registry while on a German air force base more than 15 years ago. He agreed to a swab on the inside of his cheek, which collected cells to be tested to characterize.

He had been called two other times as a potential donor but wasn't a close enough match.

"I don't think, all the time, about the donation," Rixen said, "but when they called, I said, 'Yes. OK. I will do it.'"

Condit said he now has two different sets of DNA. He still has his own organs, but blood made by Rixen's marrow courses through his veins. Jerry's blood type now matches Rixen's.

"I suppose now I'm more related to Marco than I am to my own brother," Condit said with a laugh.