Cathy Nadaud always hoped to one day meet the anonymous bone marrow donor who helped her beat back leukemia.
She didn’t know that chance would come Friday evening.
The Jewish Hospital arranged a surprise reunion for Nadaud with her Pittsburgh donor, Nina Cordelli, at the organization’s annual Partners in Hope Reunion in Mason.
Fighting back tears, Cordelli told the audience of 350 how she joined the National Bone Marrow Donor registry in 2011 when she helped coordinate a drive while in nursing school.
“The statistic they gave me was that there was a less than one percent chance I would ever be matched with anybody who needed a transplant,” said Cordelli, now 23. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would have been (matched).”
The call came eight months later. Cordelli was a near perfect match for a 60-year-old Springdale grandmother and teacher with acute myeloid leukemia. A bone marrow transplant, she was told, was the woman’s only chance for survival.
“I felt there was just no possible way I could say no to this opportunity to potentially save someone else’s life,” said Cordelli.
As Cordelli spoke, Nadaud sat in the audience, slowing recognizing herself. By the time Cordelli finished, there was no need to call her forward by name — she knew she was the one.
For Nadaud, the emotional reunion marked the culmination of a battle that began in 2008 when she was first diagnosed with leukemia.
After a bone marrow transplant fell through two weeks before the planned surgery, Nadaud underwent four rounds of chemotherapy. In May 2009, doctors declared her to be in remission.
Nadaud resumed teaching fourth grade at Bridgeport Elementary in Hamilton. Friends and family helped her celebrate when she hit the two-year mark of being cancer-free.
Then, just two days into the 2011 school year, tests revealed the leukemia had returned.
“I had a (bone marrow) donor, but that donor said they couldn’t do it for a year. In a year, I would have been dead,” said Nadaud.
That’s when the registry turned up Cordelli, now a nurse in the urologic oncology department at a Pittsburgh hospital.
Days before Thanksgiving in 2011, Cordelli underwent the two-hour procedure in which doctors drilled four holes into her hip area and punctured the bone, harvesting a liter of bone marrow.
A day later, the bag containing Cordelli’s cells were infused into Nadaud, who prayed the last-chance procedure would work.
“My daughter-in-law was pregnant with my third grandbaby and I thought, ‘I want to see that baby,’” she said.
Another punishing round of chemotherapy later, Nadaud would get that chance.
“I was 100 percent engrafted (producing healthy blood cells) with Nina’s cells in 90 days,” Nadaud said. “My nurses told me it was unusual to be 100 percent engrafted so quickly.”
Nadaud and Cordelli couldn’t meet until at least a year following the transplant — standard procedure for medical donations. At first they corresponded with anonymous letters, calling each other “donor” and “recipient.”
Dear donor: Words cannot express the gratitude my family and I feel for you. What an unselfish act from one so young. You have given me a second chance at life and the potential to see my precious grandchildren grow up… You are an angel. Sincerely, your Recipient.
Now cancer-free, Nadaud says she’s looking forward to retiring this year and spending time with her three grandchildren and family — of which Nina is now a part.
“I owe her everything,” said a tearful Nadaud. “I owe her my life and what more can you owe somebody than your life?”
HOW TO HELP
Every year, 12,000 blood cancer and blood disease patients need a marrow transplant to survive. The Be The Match registry connects patients with bone marrow donor matches
There are two ways to join: Sign up online at www.bethematch.org or at a local marrow recruitment drive. To join, people need to be between the ages of 18-60, willing to donate to any patient in need, and meet health guidelines. Registration, which is free, involves completing a health history form and giving a swab of cheek cells.