Kennedy: Only one person in the world could save Julia's life, and he said yes

Kennedy: Only one person in the world could save Julia's life, and he said yes

August 8th, 2019 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns

The two wear interlocking charms to remember their bond.

Photo by Mark Kennedy /Times Free Press.

One night in 2007, Julia LuePhang was asleep at her home in Ooltewah when she was startled awake by a voice.

The voice, which Julia believes was the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible, told her she must one day write a book and call it "Life's Journey Home." The voice told her to write down the title on a piece of paper and remember it, so she did. Julia trusted that, in the fullness of time, she would understand the instructions.

***

A year earlier in 2006, a young man in Germany, Christian Menzel, gave blood to join the World Marrow Donor Association registry. There had been a newspaper story in his town about a 3-year-old child who desperately needed a bone marrow transplant. Christian ultimately was not a match for the child, but his information remained on the registry.

***

Julia and her husband, Kenneth, have worked internationally for years and always planned to retire to a stately white house in Ooltewah they bought in 1994. Julia grew up in nearby Georgetown, Tennessee, where her family has lived for five generations.

Now age 64, Julia was already settling into retirement in early September 2015 when she began to feel weak. Usually an energetic house-cleaner and gardener, she felt too tired to do her normal work. Meanwhile, Kenneth was still working overseas.

"My relatives and friends said, 'Julia, you are over 60, you need to start slowing down,'" she recalled.

But this was more than a normal age-related slowdown, she decided. One day, Julia tried to fight through the fatigue to mow her grass, but the weakness felt bone deep.

"I said, 'Lord, just give me the strength to finish up the yard,'" she remembered thinking. Instead, she heard that spirit voice again, this time exhorting her to: "Go to the doctor, now!"

So, Julia gathered herself and hurried to a walk-in clinic in Cleveland, Tennessee, where the results of a blood test at a nearby hospital were delivered in somber terms. Her white blood cell count was off the charts high — 138,000. The normal range is 4,500 to 10,000.

"She [the doctor] walked into the room and looked me straight in the eyes. 'Julia,' she said, 'you are a very, very, very sick woman. You have leukemia."

As nurses wept, the doctor instructed Julia to find someone to drive her to a hospital immediately.

"At that moment, I felt the presence of Jesus lift me into his arms and take away all my fear," Julia said. "After that, I was never afraid."

***

An oncologist at Memorial Hospital, Dr. Davey B. Daniel, would tell Julia that she had chronic myeloid leukemia and she soon began a round of oral chemotherapy. Over the next few weeks in the fall of 2015, tests showed her cancer was getting worse. Julia was eventually told that her only real chance of survival was a stem cell transplant — but she needed a donor who was a 100% match.

Christian Menzel, left, was the only person in the world who could save Julia LuePhang's life.

Christian Menzel, left, was the only person in...

Photo by Mark Kennedy /Times Free Press.

Once Julia's siblings were tested and ruled out as donors, her doctors turned to the World Marrow Donor Association registry. Finding a genetic twin on the 35 million-name list would be a long shot, but there were actually two people in the world (Julia would later learn) who were possible matches. A person in England had to be eliminated due to past exposure to mad cow disease, and then there was a young father in Germany. The German, apparently, was her only shot.

***

Christian remembers the day the small package arrived at his home in Westoverledingen, Germany, a town of about 20,000 in Lower Saxony. The package contained instructions on how to contact his local doctor for a preliminary blood test for the stem cell match.

Christian knew nothing about the person who needed his stem cells, but he did know that it was a life-or-death matter and that he was the only known person in the world on the donor list who had a chance to help.

"It was really, really exciting," said the computer programmer, a father of two boys.

The tests came back a perfect match.

***

Back in the United States, Julia got the news that help was on the way, and the stem cell transplant was eventually scheduled for February 2016 at the Sarah Cannon cancer center in Nashville.

First, her white blood cells were wiped out to prepare for the transplant.

While she was at the center, it occurred to Julia that her cancer would be the topic of the book the Holy Spirit had commanded her to write all those years ago.

***

In Frankfurt, Germany, Christian prepared to donate life-saving stem cells, which had been sent coursing through his bloodstream by special medication. The process was a little like giving blood. There was a tube inserted into each of his arms and the stem cells were extracted from his blood by a big machine using centrifugal force. Eventually, the stem cell solution was packed into an Igloo container, flown to the United States and accompanied by a courier to Nashville.

***

There are strict rules about stem cell donors meeting their matches,which involve time (two years) and mutual consent. For two years after the stem cell transplant, as she regained her health, Julia could only write short, anonymous letters to her donor.

In one letter Julia wrote: "You will never know how much I appreciate you saving my life. From before the foundation of the world, God knew that in this generation and in this time that this person would be the one to save my life."

In turn, Christian wrote: "Me and my family are very happy to read that you are doing so well. For me, 2016 is a special year: I could help you and our second son was born. ... Happy Christmastime."

The letters were, of course, unsigned.

Meanwhile, Julia's bloodwork eventually came back into perfect alignment.

***

In March 2018, Julia got a call from a woman in charge of the bone marrow transplant program in Nashville. The woman said she was calling with good news: She had the name of Julia's donor, the name of the town where he lived and his email address.

"Would you like it?" the woman asked.

"Are you kidding," Julia said. "Yes, yes, yes."

***

By last summer Julia and Christian were planning a way to meet in person. Julia and her two adult children, Matthew and Shelley, arranged a trip to visit Christian, 34, and his family in Germany.

On the day of the meeting, both Julia and Christian were filled with nervous anticipation.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

"It was very emotional," remembered Julia. "As we were driving, we said we are one hour away ... 30 minutes away ... 15 minutes away. I was trembling all over."

For his part, Christian remembered, "We were standing in the front yard waiting for them to arrive. We were all so excited. When she got out of the car we hugged each other. We said it was like meeting a long-lost family member. She is my genetic twin!"

***

In a story full of improbable twists, none is more curious than Christian's visit to the United States this summer. Although he and his family desperately wanted to come to the United States to pay Julia and her family a visit, international travel is expensive in the summer.

Not to worry. Christian's wife, Kerstin Menzel, won 3,000 Euros in a radio contest organized around the topic of, what else, people saving other people's lives.

So Christian and Kerstin and their sons, Maksim, 3, and Milan, 8, arrived in the Chattanooga area late last month for a week of visits to the Creative Discovery Museum and Signal Mountain and the Chattanooga Choo Choo — among other places — while visiting with Julia in Ooltewah.

***

Christian and Julia said that despite their 30-year age difference they each feel as if they have gained a sibling through this experience.

"I'm really grateful that I could have the chance to save someone's life," Christian said. "It's more than just saving a life, though. The connection is really more."

"It's so hard to put into words," Julia said. " ... I look at him and say: He's my brother."

Each wears a charm on a necklace, two interlocking puzzle pieces with their names engraved.

Julia's charm says Christian. Christian's charm says Julia.

Some people find only mystery on their life's journey.

But some people, with a little divine intervention, find home.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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