Finding the right match
Student recuperates in Minnesota after undergoing two bone marrow transplants
When Kyle Tanner learned he had Fanconi anemia at age 16, he didn’t understand the toll the bone marrow disease would take on him.
“It made definitely me anxious and it made me more inclined to do things that I wouldn’t have otherwise did if I didn’t know I had a life-threatening disease,” Tanner said.
He lived his life as though nothing was wrong, but did his research. Tanner learned everything he could about Fanconi anemia — information about serious health risks such as bone marrow failure, physical abnormalities and the risk of of getting cancer.
“It kind of made me stop caring about what people thought about me,” Tanner said. “It made more empathetic.”
Doctors informed Tanner that by 19 he would likely need a bone marrow transplant. Time passed. He hoped the procedure wouldn't be necessary. Then November 2016, the 22-year-old Hudson senior was informed by his doctor that he would have to undergo a bone marrow transplant to save his life.
As Tanner’s final exams approached, he decided to go through with the operation.
Anxious and uncertain, the Central Michigan University student missed the entire spring 2017 semester and traveled to Minnesota for his first transplant. He second transplant would come a week later.
It has been two months since Tanner received the transplants. It’s an experience that has tested his strength, he said, and changed his outlook on life.
“Now that I went through a transplant, (I’m) feeling the very physical aspects of it with the mental aspects (of the disease),” he said.
Due to regulations in the donor program, Tanner cannot know the name of his donor who helped rebuild his life. All he knows is that a 20-year-old from Germany saved his life. He plans to send the man a letter that explains the magnitude of what he did for him.
“I’m extremely grateful,” Tanner said. “I’m sure I will be for the rest of my life. That was an essential part of the process. If he wouldn’t have been able to donate, I would have had to get another donor. I’m extremely grateful for that person. I hope to one day tell them how important that was for me.”
Tanner has symptoms like fevers and rapid hair loss that ends in rapid hair growth on his face while he recovers. In an effort to reduce exposure to bacteria and virus, Tanner must wear a mask.
It hasn’t been an easy journey.
Receiving the transplants
After two weeks of tests, Tanner was admitted Jan. 31 to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Before being admitted into the hospital, Tanner met a six-year-old boy who went through a transplant. The child told him, “Get ready for a lot of pain and suffering,” with a smile on his face.
Tanner laughed it off.
“Is this really what he means, or is he saying it because it’s funny?” Tanner thought. “I came to learn he definitely wasn’t saying it to be funny.”
After radiation and chemotherapy, Tanner received his first bone marrow transplant on Feb. 7. His new marrow came imported from Germany via a donor paired with Tanner through the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry.
“(The operation) was actually pretty uneventful,” Tanner said. “It’s like a glorified blood transfusion. You don’t even feel it.”
However, the company sent too few cells to be effective, and Tanner needed a second transplant. After a period of anxiousness and waiting, Tanner learned his donor would be able to give a second set of cells. His second transplant was on Feb. 17. This time he received a stem-cell transplant, and doctors took blood from his donor’s vein and converted it to bone marrow.
Tanner said he felt relief. He felt the stress that was lifted off his shoulders.
“It’s insane that you can save someone’s life by giving them your bone marrow,” Tanner said.
Support from family and friends
What he appreciates the most is walking. He’ll get up when he can, shuffling up and down the hospital halls. Bundled up and donning a face mask, Tanner said he finds strength in the stories of other young patients dealing with the same disease. The beacons of optimism are children — often ages 2 to 8 years old.
Their positive spirit helps maintain Tanner’s optimism.
“Even though they’re going through really tough times, they have a big smile on their face,” Tanner said. “That definitely makes me happy that they are able to embrace the situation. They may not know the situation they’re going through, but it’s nice to see someone smile and they’re going through the same thing I’m going through.”
When he isn’t walking, he is laying in his hospital bed with his mother on a couch by his side.
Mary Tanner has been with her son every step of the way.
“He appreciates everything more and just simple things in life,” Mary Tanner said. “He’s got to think twice before he does anything to know if it’s going to endanger his life.”
Tanner left his life at CMU behind, but that didn’t stop his closest CMU friends from traveling more than 675 miles to see him.
Hartland junior Santino Mattioli was Tanner’s roommate in 2014-15 in Herrig Hall Room 010. The two formed an instant friendship by playing games like Mario Kart.
During spring break, Mattioli and some friends traveled to Minnesota to visit Tanner in the hospital. Mattioli and Tanner played video games again and hung out once again, just like when they first met.
Mattioli said although Tanner looked tired, his spirit never diminished.
“You learn so much in the hard parts of your life,” Mattioli said. “For him to go through something like that, you learn a lot about yourself, you grow personally and (grow) stronger when you make it through it. He’s not a different person now, but you can tell he’s got a different perspective.”
Come home soon
Tanner will remain at a Ronald McDonald House in the Minneapolis area for a full 100 days so doctors can monitor his condition. During his stay, he has returned to the hospital with a fever, due to complications.
“You can’t be happy here all the time — it’s impossible,” he said. “But being able to accept what you’re going through, and realize what really happens is not in your hands what really happens, I think that’s really important.”
Despite some setbacks, the Hudson native continues to receive letters and cards from friends and family back home. He is looking forward to returning to the state he holds dear in his heart.
“I like Michigan, but what really makes Michigan for me is the people that I have there that I look forward to seeing again,” he said.
Tanner said he hopes for the day where he can go out to eat and not shower with a cord connected to monitors and equipment. He said he didn’t go to the movies that often before his transplant — now he can’t wait to go to the theaters.
“Doing nothing is something that I miss,” Tanner said. “I’m doing nothing now, but there’s really nobody around except my mom and I don’t always feel great. I’ll feel better and more comfortable in a home setting.”
Tanner hopes to leave Minnesota in May and return to CMU this fall. His goal is to earn his bachelor’s degree in Broadcast and Cinematic Arts in May 2018.
“I’m going to be grateful for the time I spend with my family and being able to enjoy the little things,” Tanner said. “It brings out things in you that you didn’t really know you enjoyed.”
There are days where Tanner feels down, but he has a different outlook on life. He said he is a better person for having gone through this.
“This whole experience isn’t going to leave me,” he said. “Even right now, I don’t completely realize how it’s changed me.”