Cayman volleyball star donates stem cells to cancer patient

Jessica Wolfenden, left, and Stefania Gandolfi at the NORCECA tournament in Cayman last month. Ms. Wolfenden left Cayman directly after the tournament to donate stem cells to an ill child in the United States. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Cayman Islands beach volleyball player Jessica Wolfenden arrived home Friday after spending about a week in the U.S. for a bone marrow transplant operation in which she donated blood stem cells to a child cancer patient.

Ms. Wolfenden, who made headlines for her team’s performance in the NORCECA volleyball tournament last month, rushed to Virginia the same day the tournament ended so that she could begin a nearly week-long medical procedure.

She said she still does not know the recipient patient.

“We don’t really get any information,” she said Friday. “I do know that throughout the next year I will hopefully get a couple of updates on how things are going. I hope, in the future, I will be able to contact her.”

Bone marrow transplant surgery can still be done “the old fashioned way,” by extracting the spongy marrow inside the bone directly from the pelvic area, but this was not the type of donation surgery Ms. Wolfenden opted for.

In modern medicine, the more common way to donate is via a procedure called peripheral blood stem cell donation. This procedure does not require surgery or anesthesia, but requires a bit more time to perform.

The donor receives a shot every day for about four or five days to make the body produce a surplus of stem cells in the blood stream. After the preparation time, a four-hour procedure ensues to extract the blood from one arm and collect the stem cells from the area around the bone. The unused portion of the blood is injected back into the donor.

“The peripheral blood stem cells will go into the patient and hopefully attach itself into her bones and start reproducing,” Ms. Wolfenden said.

“They say it’s quite rare to be a match for someone and to go through the whole donation process.”

According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is more common for a person’s own stem cells, or those of a close relative, to be used in the procedure, but strangers with the correct marrow match can be used as well.

Both direct bone marrow transplants and peripheral blood stem cell transplants are used to restore stem cells that have been destroyed by high doses of radiation or chemotherapy. The transplant procedures are most often used to assist leukemia and lymphoma patients.

Although the preparation period is lengthy, the donation procedure itself is not, and Ms. Wolfenden, who – it should be pointed out – is an internationally competitive athlete, said it did not take long for her to recover.

“You’re pretty sore and tired, but you can continue on with your daily activities,” she said.

The medical procedure will not interfere with the next beach volleyball tournament, an Olympic qualifier in El Salvador in about two weeks, where two Cayman women’s teams including Ms. Wolfenden and Stefania Gandolfi, are due to vie for the top spot and a chance to compete with world leaders in the sport for a place in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

For now, Ms. Wolfenden said she is just “chuffed” that she and Ms. Gandolfi made it to the third-place match in the NORCECA tournament here in Cayman, a feat not previously achieved by a local beach volleyball team against top-tier competition. She was also glad the tournament did not interrupt the crucial medical procedure, which seeks to save a little girl’s life in the U.S.

“Luckily, I was able to do it all,” she said.

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  1. Oh, dear,
    While I really do want to praise this young woman for what she has done, I am not at ease.
    Messing with mother nature is risky.
    Stem cell donation is associated with a small but definite risk of fatalities and serious adverse events, hematologic malignancies is just one of them. They may occurr with a latency of a few months to more than 10 years after the donation. I hope she was informed.
    I do realise that many may find my comment as inappropriate under the circumstances, but the article describes the procedure as harmless when in reality it is not.
    I wish Ms. Wolfenden full recovery and hope her selfless gift will save little girl’s life and she meets her soon.

  2. Sorry L Bell but must disagree 100%.

    I myself received a liver transplant from a deceased organ donor almost 7 years. I was within days of dying and now live a full and healthy life.

    Messing with nature perhaps but this child has cancer. When you face those kind of odds you will take any chance of life you can.