Family House Diaries: Brotherly Love in the Form of a Stem Cell Donation

60-year-old Maxine Pender of Edgecombe County receives healthy stem cells from her older brother for a bone marrow transplant, the tried and true treatment for her type of leukemia.

Family House Diaries: Brotherly Love in the Form of a Stem Cell Donation click to enlarge Maxine Pender, 60, of Tarboro, N.C., was diagnosed in May 2010 with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047,

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Brotherly love can be described many ways.  For Maxine Pender it means receiving healthy stem cells from her older brother to treat her leukemia.

Pender, 60, of Tarboro, N.C., was diagnosed in May 2010 with chronic myelogenous leukemia, an uncommon type of cancer of the blood cells that tends to progress slowly.  The disease is caused by a genetic rearrangement within a specific chromosome. New chemotherapies developed over the past decade are designed to target the abnormal receptors and stop the spread of disease. 

For some patients, those new targeted therapies send the leukemia into remission. For others, like Maxine, the chemotherapy fails to arrest the disease and a bone marrow transplant is recommended, said James M. Coghill, MD, assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the UNC School of Medicine, a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and Maxine’s physician.

“The targeted therapies weren’t working for Maxine, and there was evidence that she was a great candidate for a bone marrow transplant, the tried and true curative treatment for this type of leukemia,” Dr. Coghill said.  “She was in good health otherwise and sailed through the chemotherapy (to wipe out her immune system in preparation for the transplant) and the transplant.  It takes time for the donor cells to take, and Maxine is doing well clinically and heading in the right direction."

But back to those donor cells.  Of Maxine’s seven biological brothers and sisters, older brother Jerry Jenkins, 63, an accountant in Washington, D.C., was a perfect match. He came to UNC Hospitals for the donor stem cells to be harvested in November, and they were transplanted in Maxine on Dec. 16.  In 2010, 184 bone marrow transplants were performed at UNC Hospitals and 25 of them involved donors who were related to the recipient.

Maxine stayed at UNC Hospitals until mid-January when she was released to SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes away. Bone marrow transplant patients are required to be close to the hospital for 100 days post-transplant, and SECU Family House is the perfect home away from home, providing comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

Maxine’s sister, Martha Whitehead, stays through the week and accompanies Maxine on her three-times-a-week visits for lab work and consultations at the hospital.  Maxine’s two older sons, Reggie and Robert, live and work in Raleigh, and visit during the week and over weekends.

“It has meant a lot to me to have a secure place like Family House,” said Maxine, who worked as a monitor for special needs children in Edgecombe County.  “There are such caring people here, and you don’t have to worry about anything except getting better.   There are not many places you can go to like this.”

Maxine said the hardest part of her journey was getting over the fear of the unknown.

“We didn’t know if the transplant was going to work, and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Maxine said.  “But I should not have worried.  Even before I got down, I got God on my side.   He’s the one who guided the doctor’s hands to do what they were supposed to do."

The unknown also was an issue for Maxine’s brother, Jerry, but he credits Debbie Covington, RN, bone marrow transplant coordinator, for putting him at ease.

“She explained the process, step by step and I was fully informed about what to expect,” Jerry said.  “She gave me the information I needed to talk with my doctor to make sure I was healthy enough be a donor. Harvesting the stem cells was not painful, but it was a long process, about six hours.

“But it was a unique and wonderful experience that I would do again without reservation.  It felt great to be there for Maxine, and I know if the situation were reversed, she would do the same for me.  God made all this possible.”

Jerry has used his experience to talk about the importance of being a donor, realizing that fewer than 40 percent of African-Americans participate in tissue typing for possible matches.

“Thanks to Debbie I’ve been able to explain my experience to others and tell them why being able to donate stem cells will help others,” Jerry said.

And back to the brotherly love.

“Jerry gave Maxine a chance at life that nobody else could,” Debbie said.  “And the loving support extends to her sister and her sons.  It is particularly sweet to see how Reggie and Robert look after their Mom. All our patients should be that blessed.”

To learn more about the bone marrow transplantation process at UNC Hospitals, watch this educational video. It guides patients through the process, including a potential first visit to UNC, and features patient stories.

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