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Blood and marrow transplant helps Barbel, an acrobatic pilot, conquer cancer

Diagnosed with lymphoma and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), Barbel Abela received an umbilical cord blood transplant at University of Minnesota Medical Center.
“What they did for me is truly a miracle, and I am forever grateful,” said Barbel Abela, a former acrobatic pilot. In 2010, Abela received a life-saving blood and marrow transplant at University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Barbel Abela has never been afraid to face her fears.

Despite frequent international travel, Abela spent much of her adult life as a fearful flyer. So, at age 49, she decided to confront her flying phobia head on—by becoming an acrobatic pilot.

She learned the ins and outs of aviation, flew around the world in planes both big and small, and replaced her fear with a new passion. She moved to Florida, where she lived in a neighborhood with fellow flying aficionados.

It was there, at age 62, that Abela had to face another, even greater fear: Not being alive to see her grandchildren grow up.

Abela was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that affects the body’s immune system and weakens infection-fighting white blood cells. Over nearly six years, she underwent several rounds of high-dose chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, followed by more chemotherapy.

None of it eliminated the lymphoma. Chemotherapy’s harsh effects caused Abela to develop myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a bone marrow abnormality that is often considered a “pre-cancer” because it can lead to leukemia.

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By 2010, at age 68 and with two serious diagnoses, Abela had run out of options. Her doctors suggested treatment that could make her more comfortable but wouldn’t slow down her disease. She wasn’t ready to accept that fate—or give in to the fear of leaving her grandchildren behind.

“I wasn’t ready to die,” Abela said. “I remember thinking, ‘I will die on the day I am supposed to die. I don’t need any help getting there.’”

A chance at a cure

Abela needed help finding a doctor who could offer some hope. She sought opinions from 18 of the country’s leading hematology and blood and marrow transplant (BMT) specialists. Most declined to treat her, citing her older age and multiple diagnoses.

Only one offered a chance: Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Physician John Wagner, MD, part of the internationally recognized BMT team at University of Minnesota Health.

Encouraged, Abela headed to Minneapolis immediately. She knew nothing about the University of Minnesota’s BMT legacy at the time, but soon she found out that the world’s first successful matched, related bone marrow transplant happened at the University of Minnesota in 1968. She also learned that the University of Minnesota Health team has continued to build on that foundation in the years since, developing new ways to use BMT to help patients of all ages and with a wide variety of conditions.

Wagner thought a double umbilical cord blood transplant could be effective in treating Abela’s MDS and lymphoma. He called on colleague Hematologist/Oncologist Daniel Weisdorf, MD, who has extensive experience making BMTs safer for older patients.

“People are less resilient as they get older, and a BMT can be difficult. But we don’t want to deny people a chance at a cure just because of their age,” Weisdorf said. “When bone marrow transplants started, the average patient was parent-age, in their 30s or 40s. Now we’re often treating grandparents in their 50s and 60s.”

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Soaring success

After meeting with Abela and determining that she had no health barriers to a BMT, Weisdorf was ready to move forward. The transplant and ensuing recovery were challenging for Abela, but unlike her first transplant, the cord blood transplant succeeded in producing new, healthy blood in her body, which allowed her to overcome both her MDS and the lymphoma.

It took about three months for her immune system to return to a point where she could safely leave Minnesota, but by the fall of 2010, Abela was healthy enough to go home.

She even felt well enough to renew her pilot’s license and continue flying.

Although she’s since retired from her aviation endeavors, Abela, now 76, said she feels great. She moved to Europe to be closer to her sons and eight grandchildren, but she still makes it a point to return to Minnesota once a year for a checkup with Weisdorf.

Coming back is a way for her to confirm her good health, but it’s also a way for her to strengthen the bond she created with Weisdorf, Wagner, and University of Minnesota Medical Center, Abela said.

“I love Dr. Wagner and Dr. Weisdorf and the incomparable University of Minnesota,” she said. “What they did for me is truly a miracle, and I am forever grateful.”