U medical leap marks 30 years

Jamie VanGeest

Carol Stahl, a 68-year-old retired schoolteacher, calls her son David her “miracle child.”

Thirty years ago today, the first successful bone marrow transplant used to treat lymphoma was performed at the University, saving then 16-year-old David Stahl’s life.

Lymphoma will be diagnosed in 63,740 people nationwide in 2005, according to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Since this medical breakthrough in 1975, thousands with lymphoma are treated with bone marrow transplants, said John Kersey, the doctor who performed the first transplant and is the current director of the University Cancer Center.

In August 1975, David Stahl was brought to the University to have his lungs drained of cancer fluid.

David Stahl said he had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his abdomen. He was diagnosed with intestinal lymphoma and given a 5 percent chance of survival, Kersey said.

“The doctor’s were like, the cancer will come back more aggressively, or you can try a bone marrow transplant,” David Stahl said.

At the time, bone marrow transplants were used only to treat leukemia, David Stahl said.

“Every time we went down for one of his checkups, we would hold our breath,” Carol Stahl said.

She said she was worried because she knew how deadly the disease was.

Kersey graduated from the University’s Medical School in the 1960s, and was in charge of the University’s Transplant Center when he performed David Stahl’s bone marrow transplant.

Kersey attributes the success of the procedure to the right combination of radiation, chemotherapy and a perfect match for the bone marrow, which came from David Stahl’s younger brother.

At the time, Kersey did not know it was stem cells in the bone marrow that helped David Stahl regenerate his radiated bone marrow.

The procedure became a standard treatment for people with lymphoma and created interest in stem cell research.

Now 46, David Stahl is a technical illustrator for a company in Golden Valley, married and a father of a 10-year-old son.

“I feel lucky to be alive,” David Stahl said.

Kersey will retire from his position at the University Cancer Center later this year, but will continue to do cancer research.

Because his insurance did not cover regular visits with Kersey, David Stahl paid out of his pocket for 25 years to have his annual checkups with Kersey.

Even though the doctor-patient relationship has ended, David Stahl and Kersey still get together to talk about their children and fishing.

Currently, research on lymphoma is focusing on making the bone marrow transplant procedure’s symptoms less intense, Kersey said. Also, researchers are now able to re-create lymphoma in mice to test treatments on the animals.