26 May 2023

US child cancer patient ‘overwhelmed’ meeting Yorkshire donor who saved his life

26 May 2023

An 11-year-old cancer patient diagnosed with lymphoma was “overwhelmed” with tears when he met the stem cell donor who saved his life three years on.

James Benzel and his mother Karen Benzel, a 40-year-old business executive director from Alliance, Nebraska, USA, hugged and cried with James’ donor, Luke Bugdol, a 39-year-old police constable for South Yorkshire, from Rotherham, at DKMS’ annual London gala held at the Natural History Museum on Thursday.

DKMS (the German Bone Marrow Donor Centre) is an international charity that aims to help those fighting blood cancers and blood disorders.

The schoolchild, now in remission, told the PA news agency he was “overwhelmed” when he met Mr Bugdol.

Mrs Benzel said: “I was just grateful to meet the man that saved my son’s life and graciously gave a gift to give him the second chance of life.

“It’s just amazing and I’m extremely grateful.”

The stem cell donor, Mr Bugdol, said: “It really hit home because it’s the fact that it was for James.

“James out of all of this is a hero because James went through it all.

“Walking up to the stage I knew straight away that I’d probably struggle to talk because the emotion was there.

“And just actually meeting him was really overwhelming.”

The 11-year-old was diagnosed in May 2018 with a severe case of aplastic anaemia, described by the NHS as a ‘serious condition’ where bone marrow and stem cells do not produce enough blood cells.

James then developed non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, a cancer that affects the body’s lymphatic system.

Mrs Benzel said her family was “completely shocked” when her son was diagnosed.

“He went from being a completely healthy child, who just finished his first year in school, and then all of a sudden had these tremendous medical issues,” she said.

“We are sitting in a children’s hospital, didn’t know what to do, what to turn to, where to go.

“It’s a very helpless feeling that you can’t physically change places with your child or help them in a different way.”

James said he missed two weeks of school and his siblings had to bring his homework to him while he was in hospital.

After his diagnosis, doctors told the Benzel family the first step of treatment for James was a stem cell transplant.

Unfortunately, none of James’ five siblings were a genetic match, so James needed another donor.

In August 2018, James matched with a donor, but he said he was not able to celebrate properly as he was too ill.

Mr Bugdol donated his stem cells on February 4 2019 – they were immediately shipped to the USA and James started the transplant process the next day, on February 5.

James went through conditioning where doctors destroyed any trace of his stem cells to ensure his body was receptive to the transplant.

“The leading-up portion isn’t too horrible, it’s the side effects you get after, the typical chemo and radiation side effects, he was very ill,” Mrs Benzel said.

James was officially declared in remission in May 2021 and he now currently does not need regular health check-ups, only a visit to the doctor once a year.

James said it “was very good” to finally be allowed to play with his friends.

Mrs Benzel said it was “great” to get back to a “normal life” and to see James do “normal kid activities.”

The family had to wait for two years before they were allowed to contact the donor, as per DKMS’ requirements.

James’ mother said the family wrote a letter to the donor and Luke “graciously” responded.

Mr Bugdol said he joined the DKMS stem cell register in 2015 after his police colleague died with cancer.

In 2018, DKMS notified him that he was a potential match for a cancer patient. In 2019, he donated his stem cells using his bone marrow.

“They screw some big needles into your back – into the pelvic bone, and they draw the stem cells directly from your bone marrow,” he said.

“It was easy, all they did was screw two needles in.”

Because James was young and required a significant amount of stem cells, the sole option was to extract them from Mr Bugdol’s bone marrow, rather than a general blood extraction.

Mr Bugdol said: “For me it was never about meeting the person, it was just a case of doing what needed to be done.”

For more information on DKMS, visit: www.dkms.org.uk/register-now.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox