Lifesaving Gift Inspires Patient’s Brother to Donate Bone Marrow
At first glance, brothers Garrett and TJ Little don’t share a whole lot in common.
First, there’s a seven-year age difference. Then, Garrett is married and an operations manager for a company in Las Colinas, while TJ is a single, free spirt and an aspiring actor working summer stock in Kentucky with dreams of Broadway.
But get past the surface and you will find Garrett and TJ share a bond like never before – one has been saved by a bone marrow transplant and the other has provided that life giving donation to someone else.
Their story begins on an early Saturday morning in February, 2013. TJ was a junior in high school. He felt more fatigued and dizzy while performing, but felt it was probably just due to his hectic rehearsal schedule. TJ later told his mother, Sherri that he didn’t feel well and when his symptoms persisted they looked into it further.
TJ went to visit his pediatrician, Tom Rogers, M.D., on a Thursday and had blood work done on a Friday before he was scheduled to go to church camp. The next day, TJ received a tap on his shoulder. It was his parents, Tom and Sherri, telling him that Dr. Rogers called and wanted them to go to the Cook Children’s Emergency Department immediately.
“At that point I was freaking out a little bit,” TJ said. “I was definitely freaking out because I didn’t know what was going on. One of the weirdest moments was when we went to the emergency room and they gave us a private room, which generally doesn’t happen in the ER. By private room, I mean door shut kind of room. The doctor came in and asked if I knew what was going on. The doctor said, “I can tell you right now you either have aplastic anemia or leukemia. At that point, I didn’t even know what aplastic anemia was.”
Shortly after being admitted, TJ was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, which is a blood disorder where the body’s bone marrow doesn’t make enough blood cells. The disease affects approximately three in a million people.
And just like that, TJ’s life was turned completely upside down.
He was admitted to Cook Children’s and immediately pulled out of school for his junior year at Keller high school. His siblings weren’t a match for bone marrow transplant, so he initially underwent a six-month immune suppression therapy in hopes this would provide the cure for his disease.
“I was really hopeful that TJ would have a matched sibling, even though we know the chances of a sibling matching are only 25 percent,” said Richard Howrey,M.D., medical director of the Aphresis Program at Cook Children’s and the associate medical director of the Stem Cell Transplant Program. “When we got the disappointing news that TJ didn’t have a match in the family, we felt our best chance for cure was to give standard immunosuppressive therapy, in part because the high risk of serious complications associated with an unrelated bone marrow transplant.”
At the end of that timeframe, shortly after he went back to school for his senior year, his doctors told TJ the immune suppression therapy was not the long term answer they had hope for and he needed an unrelated donor bone marrow transplant.
For TJ, all of these life-changing (and life-saving) events couldn’t have come at a worse time for a young man with big plans for his future.
He had already started planning for college and a degree in musical theatre. He had 19 college theatre auditions scheduled for November, had been cast in a lead role in his high school’s musical, was rehearsing for the high school fall show, which was to be performed at the end of October and was directing his senior play.
TJ went to his doctors and asked for enough time before receiving his transplant to finish at least two of his high school obligations. Cook Children’s and Be The Match found a 10 for 10 match for TJ. His transplant took place on Nov. 8, 2013, a day he now celebrates as another birthday. TJ finished his responsibilities with proceeds from his senior directed play going to Cook Children’s.
Prior to the surgery, TJ’s parents hosted a “Shaving TJ’s Head Party” at their home. In addition to family and friends, a representative from Be The Match was invited to come and swab people who were interested in signing up with the registry. The age range for donors at the time was between 18 and 40 years of age, which eliminated many of the guests who were high school age or parents of high school students who were older. But Garrett decided to sign up and was swabbed that evening.
“The event was a party. It was fun. It was celebratory,” Garrett said. “I weighed the cost of swabbing, but at the time I didn’t fully know the weight of that decision. I really wanted to get on the registry though. The thought going through my head was when TJ was diagnosed, they tested me and our younger brother, Austin, but neither one of us was a match. I found out that it’s very common for siblings to not to be a match. That’s sad being the older brother and I can’t give TJ what he needs to get healthy. I thought, ‘I would love to be able to do this for somebody else’s brother.’”
TJ has a lot to celebrate now. He’s come a long way from the days of chemotherapy, radiation treatment and 108 transfusions.
“During that time it was very much about what do I have to do now to pursue theatre in the future,” TJ said. “I had to set aside acting for a while to get healthy, but I think it was the right choice. It worked out perfectly.”
TJ is currently entering into his junior year at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. He is pursuing a degree in musical theatre and is in Italy this fall studying Physical Theatre. As it turns out, TJ donor was from Germany. If both parties agree, donors and recipients have the option to meet. TJ and his donor have contacted each other through Facebook and texts, and plans are underway for TJ and his donor to finally meet face to face during his trip abroad.
“We had pretty much known from the beginning that we would want to keep in contact with this person,” TJ said. “I had to wait two years and then it was sign this form and sign that form. He had to sign a consent as well. He actually reached out to me first. I will meet him in the fall and it’s going to be awesome. It will be really interesting. I’m excited for sure. He seems very down to earth and very understanding.”
So as TJ’s transplant story was coming to the kind of happy ending any actor would want to play, Garrett’s story was just beginning.
Earlier this year, Garrett received a call to say he was a match for someone. Garrett admits to becoming nervous as he read about the procedure. As an analytical person by nature he couldn’t help but think about all the details of the procedure. Plus, he’s not a fan of needle sticks or blood. But after talking and praying with his wife Sheila, he knew this was something he sincerely wanted to do – to pay it forward for the help TJ received.
“It was such an incredible coincidence that Garrett wasn’t able to help his brother, but then had the opportunity to save the life of a complete stranger,” Dr. Howrey said.
In July 2017, Garrett drove to Cook Children’s for the first time since TJ had been discharged. Garrett said it brought back a flood of memories of when his younger brother was a patient there.
He arrived at 6 a.m. for the 8 a.m. procedure. The last thing Garrett remembers was him laughing and saying to the anesthesiologist, “I like this guy.”
The medical team drew more than a liter of bone marrow and everything appears to be a success. A year will go by before Garrett will have the opportunity to meet the person who received his bone marrow.
“I would love to meet that person,” Garrett said. “TJ had to wait two years to get in contact with his donor because he was outside the United State. In the U.S., it’s only a year. So my wife and I are definitely looking forward to making contact when that time frame’s up.
Garrett said his soreness continued for a month or so, but he has since returned to a 100 percent and he’s so glad that he took the time out to swab his cheek at TJ’s party.
“TJ and I have a quite an age gap between us,” Garrett said. “I remember growing up, playing video games and my younger brothers wanting to hang out or whatever with me. I thought they were such pests and I would get upset with them. But seeing them grow up and be in high school, I thought I want to be more a part of their lives. Then seeing TJ go through all of this, I was just like, ‘Man, I really want good quality time with him. It made me want to be closer to him.”
As they sit across from each other talking about their experiences, there’s a brief pause. Neither looks at each other but the feeling is there. They are closer than ever before … a perfect match.