The door opened and 16-year-old Maddie Tomasko stood face to face with the man who saved her life with a bone marrow donation.
She didn’t hesitate. She threw her arms around him.
He hugged her back. And he wept.
And in that moment, on the doorstep of Maddie’s home in Rockford, Michigan, two strangers from countries thousands of miles apart cemented a connection they expect to last a lifetime.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” Maddie said.
Sebastian Drews, a 29-year-old nurse, traveled from Switzerland to meet Maddie, the girl he called “my little USA sunshine.”
“It was just amazing to give her finally this big huge hug after two years,” he said.
Maddie’s family warmly embraced him as one of their own.
“This guy just didn’t give blood,” said Maddie’s mother, Cheryl Tomasko. “It was his heart and soul. I just don’t know how to describe it.”
A better match
Maddie’s first face-to-face meeting with Sebastian occurred in July, two years after her bone marrow transplant at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. The moment marked a milestone in a hard-fought battle against leukemia―a battle that included two bone marrow transplants.
Curled up on the couch of her Rockford home, with her two dogs beside her, Maddie recounted the journey.
In April 2011 at age 11, she learned she had acute myeloid leukemia. She received a bone marrow transplant and recovered without complications. She returned to school the following January, picking back up in sixth grade.
I firmly believe God spared his life to be here.
She and her family hoped cancer would remain in her past. But two years later, it resurfaced.
By then, Maddie was 14 and in eighth grade. In February 2014, she became ill with the flu. She went to the doctor, had a blood test and then a bone marrow biopsy. When she and her parents met with Maddie’s medical team, Ulrich Duffner, MD, confirmed their worst fears.
“Your leukemia is back,” he said.
Maddie burst into tears.
“I was just scared in general,” she said. “It was different from the first time because I knew exactly what was going to happen.”
Another bone marrow transplant lay in her future. But Dr. Duffner, the pediatric blood and marrow transplant specialist, explained that doctors had developed better ways to select a donor and reduce the risk of a relapse.
They examine the human leukocyte antigens―proteins, or markers―found on the surface of most cells. The immune system uses the HLA markers to recognize which cells belong in the body.
“We want the donor with the best match possible, because that makes the likelihood for the success of the transplant better,” Dr. Duffner said.
Through Be the Match, the national marrow donor program, they checked international bone marrow registries and found several possible matches. Sebastian, a donor registered in Germany, stood out as the best. He matched 10 out of 10 antigens. And he possessed additional immune system factors that made him the ideal candidate.
Tracking him down
The next challenge was to find Sebastian. A native of Dresden, Germany, he had signed up for the registry a decade ago, at the age of 19. In the following years, he became a nurse and moved to Switzerland.
Sebastian, in an email interview, explained he was working as a nurse manager of a hospital intensive care unit in Zurich when registry officials contacted him. He readily agreed to be Maddie’s donor.
“We were very happy to find him,” Dr. Duffner said. He acknowledged that even when the registry finds a match, a transplant doesn’t always happen.
“Sometimes, life circumstances change, and somebody is not able to donate,” he said.
Maddie moved into a room on the ninth floor of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and began chemotherapy and radiation sessions to wipe out her bone marrow in preparation for the transplant.
Sebastian went to a hospital in Germany, where a doctor extracted bone marrow from his hipbone. A courier transported the marrow, packed in a small cooler, to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
On May 8, 2014, Maddie’s new bone marrow dripped into her bloodstream. For the next several months, Maddie’s family focused their attention on her recovery, as she battled fungal infections and other complications.
“That period of time was pretty stressful,” her mother said. “We weren’t sure of the outcome.”
Several months post-transplant, with Maddie doing well, her mother took a moment to send a short message to the donor through Be the Match. “Thank you for your lifesaving gift,” she wrote.
Be the Match keeps the identities of donor and recipient confidential for two years but allows them to exchange messages anonymously through the agency. Sebastian responded, and a regular correspondence developed.
Not knowing Maddie’s name, Sebastian created one for her. He dubbed her “my little USA sunshine.”
“(With) all the things she has been through, this name made perfect sense to me,” he said.
The Tomaskos learned that four months before he donated bone marrow, Sebastian had survived a serious motorcycle accident. He crashed through a car’s back window and landed in the middle of the road.
“I only had small internal bleeding and severe contusions,” Sebastian said. He spent three days in the hospital and returned to work two weeks after the accident.
The Tomaskos see his survival as no accident.
“I firmly believe God spared his life to be here,” Cheryl said. “It’s all part of a bigger plan that we can’t see.”
‘They even kind of look alike’
After the two-year anniversary of Maddie’s transplant, the Tomaskos and Sebastian signed consent forms so they could contact each other directly. And Sebastian and his girlfriend, Christine Neidhart, asked if they could visit.
On July 19, they arrived in West Michigan. They stayed at a hotel in Grand Rapids, but they spent their days at Cheryl and Steve Tomasko’s Rockford home.
It’s a very selfless act to do, so it’s nice to be able to thank him in person.
Although the Tomaskos don’t speak German, Sebastian and Christine knew enough English to communicate. They blended in like siblings with Maddie and her younger brothers, 11-year-old Jacob and 9-year-old twins, Cody and Ryan.
They went out for dinner several times, visited Lake Michigan and played Battleship. Sebastian impressed the Tomaskos with his compassion and friendly nature.
“He’s very thoughtful,” Cheryl said. “He’s very mature for a 29-year-old.”
“He’s really nice and kind and sweet and open and wonderful,” Maddie said.
And Maddie and Sebastian discovered similarities. They both like to read. Both are adventurous.
“They even kind of look alike,” Cheryl said.
Sebastian agreed. Both have freckles and similar smiles and facial expressions.
Cheryl wonders if the family’s European ancestry helped make the match with a German donor. Although Maddie has no German heritage, her family roots trace to Poland and the Netherlands.
Maddie impressed Sebastian as “a very beautiful young lady.” Despite all she had endured, she seemed to be “just a happy young girl exploring life,” he said. “The name I gave her (little sunshine) matches her personality perfectly.”
Sebastian also admired Maddie’s parents and younger brothers.
“Maddie comes from a very strong family background,” Sebastian said. “The three brothers are like three little gentlemen. They treat her like she is the queen of the family.”
The family brought Sebastian to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital so he could meet Maddie’s medical team.
The nurses and doctors who cared for Maddie through her transplant relished the chance to meet the man who made it possible.
“It’s a very selfless act to do, so it’s nice to be able to thank him in person,” said Karrie Gumina, RN, a transplant coordinator. “He did really help save her life. It’s pretty amazing.”
Sebastian hopes his story will encourage others to register as bone marrow donors.
“(It) takes you not more than five minutes,” he said “But in these five minutes, you can maybe save a life.”
A junior at Rockford High School, Maddie loves science, history and theater. She dreams of being a writer. She plans to go to college, but is not sure where.
But one thing she hopes her future holds: a trip to Switzerland with her mom to visit Sebastian. They plan to go next summer.
“We are definitely going to see him again,” Maddie said. “My connection with Sebastian is really special.”