Matt only remembers snippets from the stem cell transplant that saved his life. After all, he was just three years old when doctors at the University of Minnesota Health’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Center performed the procedure.
But in many ways that operation has defined his life. It fuels his faith. It serves as a touchstone when he comes face-to-face with difficult challenges. And—above all—it drives him to give back.
Which is why Matt, now 23, is pursuing a career in medicine. In October 2013, Matt visited the University of Minnesota Medical Center, where his transplant took place. But this time, twenty years after the procedure, he was on campus to interview for medical school.
“Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, because of the past,” Matt said. “Because of all the commitment and the selflessness involved in my transplant.”
Snyder was diagnosed as a young child with Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome—a genetic condition carried on the X chromosome. The condition, which primarily affects men, can cause skin disorders—like severe eczema—and abnormalities in the immune system. Because the syndrome affects white blood cells and platelets, people with the condition have difficulty fighting infection and forming blood clots, which means even a minor injury could lead to prolonged or uncontrollable bleeding.
People with the condition are also more susceptible to leukemia, according to Tim Krepski, a nurse and program supervisor for the M Health blood and marrow transplant program.
M Health care teams in the Blood and Marrow Transplant Center perform between 250 and 300 stem adult and pediatric cell transplant operations each year, said Krepski, who served as the donor search coordinator for Snyder’s operation in 1993. The center performed the world’s first successful bone marrow transplant in 1968, and now the center employs a large, highly experienced and accomplished team of BMT experts.
Replacing a patient’s defective stem cells with those from a donor allows the recipient’s body to start producing healthy platelets and white blood cells—effectively reversing Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome. Despite significant advances in medical technology and the expertise of trained care providers, a stem cell transplant is still risky for patients.
That’s because physicians use a heavy dose of chemotherapy to wipe out the body’s immune system, Krepski said. Specialists then infuse the new stem cells directly into the patient’s blood stream, where they start from scratch building new white blood cells and platelets.
Three days after the transplant, care providers administer immuno-suppressants to prevent Graft vs. Host Disease.
To minimize complications, donors for stem cell transplants are carefully selected from a national registry. In Matt’s case, the cells were donated from a woman in Seattle.
For as long as he can remember, Matt’s parents have told him his life is a “miracle”. Since the surgery, his family has kept in close contact with several of his care providers. But no simple ‘thank you’ was enough for Matt.
“I want to give back to that community, the field and the area that gave me life, and how do I do that? By serving and loving people really well and doing my job to the fullest,” Matt said.
Seeing patients like Matt survive and flourish is moving for Krepski.
“It’s a complete rush,” Krepski said. “Patients come here who have been turned away by other centers—centers who tell them there’s no hope, nothing they can do for you. Our motto is that we’ve been giving hope for over 40 years.”