Two families were introduced in Calgary this week for a reunion of sorts as a Texas man met the nine-year-old recipient of his stem cell donation.

Nearly seven years ago, the Gracia family noticed a drastic change in their young son Erik.

“He was doing karate in our family room and all of a sudden he felt very fatigued and we noticed he had some lumps that were red but starting to turn darker and his legs really, really hurt him,” recalls Carol Gracia. “We weren’t sure what that was but we decided to take him into the Children’s (Alberta Children’s Hospital) to make sure he was okay.”

The family received the devastating news that their son had leukemia and the odds were not in his favour.

“The only saving grace would be a bone marrow transplant and we would need to find a ten out of ten match,’ said Gracia.

Years before Erik’s diagnosis, Brent Lewelling of Bowman, Texas, located roughly 2,700 kilometres from Calgary, took part in a blood drive at his high school. .  

“I was giving blood for a blood drive and one of the ladies asked if I'd be interested in being a donor,” recalls Lewelling. “They told me most likely I wouldn't get a call or I would never have to worry about it.”

In their search for a suitable stem cell donor, Erik’s doctors found a perfect match deep in the heart of Texas.  

“They came back to us and said they had found a man that was a 10 out of 10 match for our son,” said Gracia. “We were just elated.”

Six years after his blood donation, Lewelling, a college student, received an unexpected call asking if he’d be willing to help an unnamed boy in Canada. Lewelling said he didn’t hesitate to offer assistance. “I was like ‘yeah, let’s go for it!”

In order to improve Erik’s chance of survival, the stem cells would need to be extracted from Lewelling’s bone marrow, a procedure that would require surgery. The Gracia family waited an excruciating 48 hours before receiving the news that Lewelling was willing to undergo the procedure.

“They took a couple of pints (of blood) just in case there was a complication in the procedure,” recalls Lewelling. “They put me to sleep, drilled holes in my hip bones and they got (the stem cells) out from there.”

The transplant was successful and Erik’s health has improved.

“Just trying to hold on to that dream, that hope, that he could grow up and have a normal childhood,” said Carol Gracia. “To see that actually, fully realized, just blows me away.”

The donor did not know who he was helping or the specifics of his medical concerns.

“I didn’t know it was Erik,” said Lewelling. “I didn’t know he’d been waiting for so long. I knew he needed it but I didn’t know he was about to die. I didn’t know the circumstances until after I donated.”

This week, the Lewelling and Gracia families met in Calgary where the donor and recipient took a moment to chat and play chess.

“He’s a good little man,” said Lewelling of Erik Gracia. “He's so active. He reminds me of me when I was little.”

The nine-year-old enjoys spending time outdoors biking and playing sports and ‘feels happy most of the time’. Erik says he enjoyed his time in hospital but it wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“I like those memories of being at the hospital but I like being at home because I get to hang out with my family more,” said Erik Gracia.

The Gracia family hopes Erik's success story will encourage more people to sign up for the registry. According to researchers, young people are the best candidates and there is currently a shortage of ethnic donors.

For more information on stem cell donation, visit Canadian Blood Services