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John Kersey and Dave Stahl

John Kersey and David Stahl exchange smiles over an image from the past.

30 years of hope

U marks 30th anniversary of world's first successful bone marrow transplant

By Nicole Endres

March 7, 2006; updated March 22

To a teenager, being diagnosed with cancer is devastating. And 30 years ago, being diagnosed with cancer was even worse.

"Back then, with the word 'cancer' you thought 'death,'" says David Stahl, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1975 at age 16.

Things looked pretty grim for Stahl that year. After an episode of terrible stomach pains, doctors thought he had a gastric infection. But on the day he could barely breathe and was rushed to the hospital, a chest X-ray revealed that his lungs were filled with fluid. Doctors told him he might have died had he arrived just 15 minutes later.

More tests at the University of Minnesota Hospital revealed that he had a grapefruit-size tumor in his abdomen. He was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma--and given a 5 percent chance of survival.

Doctors were able to put Stahl's cancer into remission, but they couldn't cure him.

"They said the cancer would come back a lot faster, and then there would be no hope at all," Stahl said. His doctors offered him one last option: He could try to stop the cancer by undergoing an experimental bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow transplants, in those days, were used to only treat leukemia, and doctors didn't know that stem cells in the bone marrow were what helped regenerate healthy cells.

John Kersey, founder and director of the U's Cancer Center, led the team that performed the first-ever bone marrow transplant for treating lymphoma on October 7, 1975, a procedure that effectively saved Stahl's life. The right combination of radiation and chemotherapy and a perfect bone marrow match from Stahl's younger brother made the procedure the success it was, Kersey says. Stahl believes his positive attitude helped in his recovery, too.

Transplant Center

The University of Minnesota transplant program began in 1963, when its first kidney transplant was performed. The U's transplant program quickly became known as "the place willing and able to take on difficult, complex cases, including high-risk, extremely young and older patients." By 2003, more than 6,000 kidney transplants and 9,600 total transplants have been performed. See Transplant Center milestones to learn more.

"By giving someone else's bone marrow, you're giving someone else's immune system," says Kersey, who was head of the University's Bone Marrow Transplant Program during the novel operation. "And that immune system had the capability of reacting against his tumor."

Thirty years later, bone marrow transplantation is a standard treatment for lymphoma. David Stahl is now a technical illustrator for a Golden Valley company and keeps busy by golfing, fishing, and watching his 11-year-old son play basketball. And best of all, he's still healthy.

Stahl no longer sees Kersey for regular appointments, but the two did get together for the 30th anniversary of the history-making procedure. They also met up at a Twin Cities charity event last February where Stahl presented Kersey with an award in honor of those who contribute to the health and wellness of cancer survivors and their families.

"I told the guys at the University that I'll do anything for him, just give me a holler," Stahl says. "He was the one who saved my life."

Reprinted from the winter 2006 Medical Bulletin, published by the Minnesota Medical Foundation.