ROCHESTER, Minn. — This week, the Mayo Clinic officially hit an impressive milestone nearly 60 years in the making. It has now completed 10,000 blood and bone marrow transplants in Minnesota.
To help celebrate the occasion, the current team of doctors and nurses got a special visit from some of the pioneers who made it all possible.
To truly appreciate how far these life-saving procedures have come, it helps to go back to step one.
"Before my transplant, the three years I was sick, it was really hard," said Nancy McLain. "I received my last rites twice. So I knew I was dying."
McLain was a healthy, 7-year-old girl living in Canby, Minnesota, but in 1960 she was diagnosed with a rare blood condition called aplastic anemia. At the time, there wasn't much hope for patients like her and after three years of failed treatments, she no longer resembled her identical twin sister, Bonnie Engesmoe.
"You can see (in photos) how much Prednazone I was on because of the moon face that I had," McLain said. "Over the three-year span, I had had 98 pints of blood."
"They would actually call juniors and seniors out of their classroom to go to the Canby hospital to give her blood," Engesmoe said. "It was arm-to-arm transfusions."
With time running out, Mayo Clinic Dr. Robert Kyle recommended an experimental bone marrow transplant that would only be possible with her sister's help.
"My mom could not make the decision because, at the time, there was a possibility of losing both of us," Engesmoe said. "So she made me make the decision, which was very easy. Her cure was her twin sitting right next to her."
"Bonnie and I got to basically pioneer it," McLain said.
Within weeks, her blood returned to normal, and the twins never looked back.
"We've come a long ways, and now we're grandmas," she said. "Now we're happy grandmas."
On Tuesday, those happy grandmas were even happier to reunite with Dr. Kyle, who is still a consultant for the Mayo Clinic at 94 years old.
"I think I'm going to cry. It's so good to see you," McLain said.
"Yes, this is wonderful, and here's the lady who made it all happen," Dr. Kyle said, embracing Engesmoe as well.
"Thank you for saving my twin," Engesmoe replied. "You're a blessing to all of us."
Dr. Kyle has now served the Mayo Clinic for nearly 70 years, and on Tuesday, that included a trip with his first transplant patients to help celebrate the doctors and nurses who made the 10,000th transplant possible.
"Thank you for leading us down this road," said Dr. William Hogan, current director of the Mayo Clinic Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Program.
A lot has changed since that first transplant. It no longer requires an identical twin, or even bone marrow exclusively, but Dr. Hogan says you can't appreciate this milestone without going back to step one.
"It's really kind of awe-inspiring to think that there's 10,000 more patients that have followed in your footsteps," he said.
Ten thousand and counting.
"I hope that I'm here for 20,000 and I hope you invite me back," McLain said. "But I never knew I'd be so famous just for getting old."
Nancy McLain is already among the oldest, living bone marrow transplant recipients in the world. She says her wish is that her story will inspire others to be donors.
All it takes is a quick swab to find out if you might be able to save a life for a person in need. To find out how to get started, visit BeTheMatch.org.
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