Lifesaving FDNY Bone Marrow Donors Honored

Newsday - January 26, 2012

by IGOR KOSSOV

Now 6 years old, a girl who had been a hair's breadth from death three years ago Wednesday met the man who saved her by donating his bone marrow.

Alise Mareerose Williams of Evansdale, Iowa, is alive because FDNY firefighter James Wildes, 37, is on a donor registry. Wildes was among six firefighters honored at Wednesday's FDNY Honor Roll of Life ceremony in Downtown Brooklyn.

Born with Fanconi anemia, a rare, inherited blood disorder, Alise had had two open heart surgeries by the time she was 16 months old. "She flatlined twice," said her tearful father, Troy Williams, 45, a utility worker. "Twice, I came close to seeing my little girl die."

After the surgeries and chemotherapy, Alise still needed a bone-marrow transplant. Her family and doctors turned to Be The Match, a registry of bone marrow and umbilical blood transplant donors.

Wildes, a former NYPD officer from Staten Island who joined the FDNY after 9/11, was a perfect match for Alise.

Such a match is rare, according to the New York Blood Center, which partners with Be The Match and the FDNY to find donors for patients. Wildes had registered with Be The Match while he was a probationary firefighter at the fire academy in July 2002.

"I can't even imagine what the Williams family was going through," Wildes said. "When I got the call, I found out it was a little girl, I said 'I'll go right now, if you need me.' "

On Feb. 3, 2009, Wildes donated marrow from his hip and a day later, Alise got the transplant. Over the ensuing months, her condition stabilized and her disease is no longer life-threatening.

Most donors and recipients never learn each other's identities, but Wildes and the Williams family began corresponding. Alise sent Wildes many drawings and letters of thanks as she looked forward to meeting him.

"She talked about this constantly for almost two weeks," said her mother, Debra Williams, 47, who embraced Wildes for the first time at the ceremony while Alise shyly clung to her mother's side and didn't answer questions. "Normally, she's much more bombastic."

The 140 FDNY firefighters who have been bone-marrow donors account for 13 percent of the nonprofit New York Blood Center's marrow donations.

"FDNY's firefighters are New York City's single greatest source of bone-marrow donors," said Dr. Christopher D. Hillyer, president and chief executive of the blood center.

Francis Morrisey, an FDNY firefighter from Williston Park who works at a Harlem firehouse, is among the donors. He registered to give marrow 15 years ago and got his chance to donate in December 2011, to a 52-year-old man. Morrisey said that he had to get multiple shots and be on a dialysis machine for six hours during the extraction.

But, he quipped, the award ceremony "is the hardest part of the procedure."