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Duluth woman meets the German donor whose stem cells saved her life

t042017 --- Clint Austin ---042317.N.DNT.DONOR.C01 --- Merissa Edwards received a lifesaving stem cell transplant and scans since then found she was cancer-free. This week, for the first time, she met her donor, a German woman named Daniela Halfkann who flew to Duluth with her family. Edwards (left) and Halfkann play with Daniela's girls, Ina (left) and Mila while visiting at the Edgewater Hotel & Waterpark in Duluth Thursday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 4
t042017 --- Clint Austin ---042317.N.DNT.DONOR.C03 --- Merissa Edwards received a lifesaving stem cell transplant and scans since then found she was cancer-free. This week, for the first time, she met her donor, a German woman named Daniela Halfkann who flew to Duluth with her family. Edwards wipes tears away from her eyes while talking about her treatment (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 4
t042017 --- Clint Austin ---042317.N.DNT.DONOR.C04 --- Daniela Halfkann of Germany donated stem cells to Merissa Edwards of Duluth who received a lifesaving stem cell transplant and scans since then found she was cancer-free. This week, for the first time, the two met in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 4
t042017 --- Clint Austin ---042317.N.DNT.DONOR.C02 --- Merissa Edwards (left) received a lifesaving stem cell transplant and scans since then found she was cancer-free. This week, for the first time, she met her donor, a German woman named Daniela Halfkann who flew to Duluth with her family. The two are playing with Daniela's daughter, Ina, while visiting at the Edgewater Hotel & Waterpark in Duluth Thursday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 4

DULUTH, Minn.—Four-year-old Ina Halfkann walked over to Merissa Edwards, giving her a plastic Easter egg from a display in the lobby of the Edgewater Hotel.

It was Thursday afternoon, and the little girl from near Cologne, Germany, and the 40-year-old Duluth woman had known each other for less than 24 hours. But it was obvious that Edwards already had bonded with Ina and her little sister Mila.

They were together because the girls' mother had given Edwards a much greater gift: the gift of life.

"By your donation, I still get to be a mom," Edwards told Daniela Halfkann, 30. "(You're) a mom, so you completely understand how important it is to be here with your children."

Edwards, the mother of 15-year-old twin boys and the wife of Duluth Fire Chief Dennis Edwards, is alive because of the stem cell transplant she received at the Mayo Clinic on Oct. 31, 2014. As a result, she said, she is in remission from the rare and aggressive form of leukemia with which she had been diagnosed that June.

All she was told at the time of the transplant was that the donor was a woman from Germany.

Halfkann had registered as a potential stem cell or bone marrow donor at the large insurance company where she works in Cologne, she said. One day she received a call, saying her donation was needed.

After the six-hour procedure, Halfkann was told nothing more than that the recipient was a woman in the United States.

After a two-year waiting period required in Germany, the two women learned each other's identities last October and connected via Facebook.

Their meeting in Duluth was arranged by Amanda Schamper, Midwest donor recruitment coordinator for DKMS, the Germany-based organization that facilitated the donation.

Halfkann made the trip along with husband Stefan and their daughters, leaving their home at 3 a.m. on Tuesday and arriving at the Duluth International Airport at 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

Like Edwards, DKMS wants to raise awareness of the need for people to enter the registry, said Schamper, who also traveled to Duluth for the occasion.

She said 14,000 patients are in need of a peripheral blood stem cell or bone marrow donation, but fewer than half will get one because there's no match on the registry.

"We're looking for a particular protein in our DNA," she explained.

Only in 30 percent of cases are siblings a match. Edwards' brother and sister both had been screened, she said, and neither was a match for her.

Finding a match "is equated to finding your genetic twin, or winning the genetic lottery," Schamper said.

If more people were on the registry — a process that only requires taking a swab from your cheek — there would be more potential matches. But only 2 percent of eligible Americans are registered, Schamper said.

When the Halfkanns arrived at the gate on Wednesday, Dennis and Merissa Edwards, along with sons Caden and Jaxon, were waiting at the gate.

It was an emotional moment.

"It was hard for me," Merissa Edwards said on Friday, speaking to Daniela Halfkann. "I was crying. I was so emotional, so happy to meet you and hug you."

She wiped away a tear. "I still am."

"It was amazing," Halfkann responded. "I cried at the gate, too."

The Halfkanns, who are staying at the Edgewater, initially focused on recovery from jet lag. But Edwards is making sure they'll get a full taste of Duluth and Minnesota before beginning their return trip to Germany next Saturday. That includes visits to the Mall of America, the Great Lakes Aquarium and a trip up the North Shore.

A "thank-you party," open to the public, is planned on Sunday afternoon. Halfkann also will be recognized on Monday during the Saints Sports Awards ceremony at the College of St. Scholastica, where Edwards is an administrative assistant in the athletics department.

Recovery from the ravages of leukemia has been a long process, Edwards said, but she remains in remission. She gets a PET scan every six months to make sure that's still the case; the next one takes place next week.

Edwards shares her story, she said, not to call attention to herself but to highlight the need for people to take the simple step of registering as a potential donor.

"It's so important for us to help other people keep their families together and save a mother or father or son or daughter," she said. "The more people we can encourage to cheek-swab and get on the registry, the more lives we can help save and help families stay together."

TO LEARN MORE

For more information and to learn how to get on the bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cell registry, visit dkms.org.

IF YOU GO

The thank-you party for Daniela Halfkann will be from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday at The Other Place Bar and Grill, 3930 E. Calvary Road.

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