Reserve pilot gives Minnesota boy the gift of life

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Collier
  • 302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Just what does it take to save a human life? Would you believe a simple bulletin board?

For Air Force Reserve Capt. Robert Wilson, the mundane act of getting up from his desk for a break would plant a seed in his mind. That seed would grow into the decision to provide a live-saving bone marrow donation, saving a seven-year-old Minnesota boy from death.

While at his civilian job in Oregon, Wilson remembered an article on a bulletin board in a break room that caught his eye.

"There was an article talking about how someone had donated bone marrow and saved someone else doing so," Wilson said. "I thought it was a neat, heartwarming story. Then I quickly went back to my day."

Tucking that article into the back of his brain, Wilson said soon after, he was donating blood at an American Red Cross facility in Portland, Ore. While filling out the blood donation paperwork, he came across a check box that asked if he would give consent for the technician to take an extra vial of blood. The information gained from the blood would then be added to the nationwide bone marrow donor database.

"I recalled instantly reading that story from before and I thought, oh yeah, that sounds like a good idea," he said. I checked the box, they took the blood, and that was all there was to it. Then I went about life."

While Wilson went about his daily routine, close to 1,800 miles away a child was suffering. Seven-year-old Alexander, or "A.J." Neppl of Apple Valley, Minn., had recently been diagnosed with aplastic anemia. The condition left him unable to create his own red or white blood cells and was restricting his blood from producing platelets, which allows blood to clot. His worsening condition was not only taking a toll on him physically and mentally, but according to his mother, Anne Neppl, the shock of learning her son had this condition was "overwhelming."

"When you looked at him, he looked healthy; he didn't look sick or act sick," Neppl said. "He had some subtle signs that I know now of what a person with aplastic anemia has. We had no clue what aplastic anemia was. It was overwhelming because he was so critically ill, and things snowballed quickly when (the doctors) found out he was sick."

The Neppls first began their son on a drug-therapy treatment they had learned about as a possible way to combat the aplastic anemia. After a short time, combined with much hope and prayer, it was found that the drug therapy was not effective. The doctors informed the family the only option for A.J. was a bone marrow transplant. Neppl said she, her husband and her daughter were all tested to see if they would be a match. A.J.'s sister was found to be a close match, but Neppl recalled how the idea of a transplant "just scared us."

"Everything you have to do to prepare for this transplant and the complications that come after the risks associated with doing this ... it's not something you take lightly," she said. "There are so many things you have to take into consideration. I don't even think we truly knew what we were getting ourselves into."

Fortunately for the Neppls, they never had to make the decision of A.J.'s sister providing a donation. A perfect matching donor was located in Colorado.

"I get a phone call from the bone marrow place and they said there is a patient, a seven-year old boy who has this fatal condition and you have a strong potential to be a proper match for him. So I drove up to Denver and met up with people at the bone marrow center who did some additional tests," Wilson said. "They asked me then to consider donating bone marrow then and now. They told me because of his condition, if I donated the bone marrow, it was possible he could make a full recovery, but it could also be a dramatic swing the other way."

According to Wilson, because of A.J.'s condition, it would give him a better chance if they took the bone marrow directly from Wilson's spinal cord.

"I was willing to accept this small risk to help him out. It didn't seem like that much or anything that required a lot of thought. If you think about it for a few minutes, it makes sense to go out and do it. I thought about it, did some research on the condition, and agreed to it," he said.

With the bone marrow extracted, it was quickly whisked away to an awaiting aircraft and flown to the St. Paul-Minneapolis International Airport in Minnesota. There, it was rushed to an already-medically prepped A.J. who was ready to receive the life-saving transplant. Thinking back to the phone call she received of a perfect donor being found, Anne Neppl said she thought the family had received the "best news in the world" and she knew A.J. "had a fighting chance."

After receiving the transplant, A.J. began a slow, but steady recovery. While the aplastic anemia seemed to be subsiding, the family was also faced with additional news of two tumors found in and around A.J.'s brain. Neppl left her job to care for A.J. full time, helping to continue the treatments by placing intravenous needles into her son or providing him fluids when his body was weak. The treatment continued, eventually shrinking the tumors, rendering them almost completely harmless. Even with A.J.'s improved condition, Anne said the family continues to deal with various medical issues and the emotional toll.

"I think we are still trying to get back into a normal life where we are not living day by day, worried about whether or not he's going to get sick again," she said. "Once he came home after the bone marrow transplant, he needed a lot of care in our home so I took that on and learned a lot about hooking him up to IVs and fluids."

A.J. continued his climb back to health. Meanwhile, Wilson wondered what had become of the boy he provided help to. A year after donating the bone marrow in 2009, Wilson had signed a consent form to the bone marrow registry, giving A.J.'s parents access to his contact information. Unbeknownst to Wilson, the Neppls had done the same, wanting to know more about the person who had saved their son's life.

"I thought it was pretty neat that somebody like that would want to help others," Anne said. "He sounded like a really amazing guy to me with all that he did."

Wilson said he remembered the first phone call with Anne Neppl in a different way.

"I remember I had some emotion and butterflies going on a little bit," he said with a chuckle. "We were both pretty excited to talk to each other and we went right into how A.J. was doing, went into his whole lifestyle and A.J.'s family, including his sister."

Neppl learned about Wilson's connection to the Air Force and how her family's military connection brought them together on the phone.

"My dad was in the service too, so we had a little bit of a connection that way," Neppl said. "To me, it seemed like a huge sacrifice for him to make, but to him he made it sound like no big deal ... like he would do it for anyone. I truly admire those people who serve our country."
The two talked and both agreed that he and A.J. should meet one day.

"I think (A.J.) wants to see the person that helped him and thank him," she said. "Thanking him face to face and having that connection with somebody, I think, would be amazing. I would love to continue our relationship with him and update him on how A.J. is doing. It's hard to describe how you feel and what do you say. There's no book for that on what to do."

Wilson said he hopes others will take away from his experience that it takes no effort at all to both donate bone marrow and save another human being.

"There is no commitment to putting your name on the bone marrow donation list," he said. "It was a positive thing for me and for A.J. There's also no commitment in finding out if you are a match for somebody. It's just like donating blood any other time. It's just that easy."

And who knows, maybe the next bone marrow donor out there will see this story on a bulletin board.