(August 2011) Life is full of surprises.  Just ask Darlene and Joseph Davis who seem to have had a lifetime of surprises—good and bad, then good again—already. 

As a healthcare professional, Joe Davis knew quite well the risks that his children might be born with sickle cell anemia, a blood disease affecting one of every 500 African-Americans that is passed on to offspring through genetic traits.  But sickle cell anemia is a fact of life and his wife Darlene desperately wanted a baby.  When Joe Jr. was born, they were both thrilled, particularly since Darlene had been diagnosed as infertile and needed special reproductive treatments to get pregnant. 

But happiness turned to despair when Joe Jr. was about eight months old.  The happy baby was constantly crying, and did not like to be moved or even held.  He ran fevers constantly and soon the dreaded diagnosis came down—sickle cell anemia.

As a nurse, Joe Sr. saw sickle cell patients all the time and knew from experience that the symptoms varied widely from patient to patient. Their hopes that Joe Jr.’s symptoms would be mild were quickly dashed and it appeared that his life might well be not only short, but filled with one crisis after another.  Doctors confided to Joseph and Darlene that their son may not live to his teen years. 

“All of the research and literature I’d read said there was no cure for sickle cell anemia,” recalls Joe Sr.  “only treatments like blood transfusions that were temporary fixes.”   Then one day a doctor they knew spoke about a new option he’d learned about—a transplant using adult stem cells taken from a donor at birth from umbilical cord blood.

It sounded promising, but with one important catch: they needed a good match from the donor and the number of cord blood donations from the African-American community was low.  In fact, when they put out a worldwide search, nothing promising resulted.

Then another surprise came to the Davis household: Darlene got pregnant. 

At first neither could believe it, even though the home pregnancy test scored positive.  But the truth of her pregnancy was confirmed when Darlene got a blood test by a doctor.  “It was a miracle,” she said.

As the pregnancy progressed, a prenatal amniocentesis was conducted, revealing the blood type of Davis Baby #2 to be a perfect match for the transplant. Baby #2 was a boy—Isaac—and his umbilical cord blood was saved at birth as part of the Cord Blood Registry’s Designated Transplant Program. 

The transplant itself was almost anticlimactic.  Joe Jr. was two years old at the time.  After a dose of chemotherapy killed off the diseased blood cells, he was injected with adult stem cells taken and cultured from his brother’s umbilical cord blood.  The results were immediate and exhilarating.  Joe Jr. was cured, with not a hint of sickle cell anemia since the transplant. 

Today the Davis family travels the country extolling the virtues of banking cord blood.  Even the boys get into the act, and they give their own talk when called upon.  “My name is Joe Davis, and adult stem cells from my brother saved my life!”  Isaac is glad to have an older brother, but quickly comments to anyone who might be listening: “Yeah, but I can still beat him at golf.”