SEATTLE -- Ryan Kilbury is not usually given to tears.
But this week in a Seattle hospital cafeteria, the Pasco man had to stop mid-sentence to keep from crying in public.
He swallowed the emotion clogging his throat. "I can't talk about this while I'm looking at you," he said to a woman next to him.
Kilbury was talking about his wife and three young children. About his father and friends.
And about how a deadly disease almost tore him away from his loved ones, if not for the selfless act of a stranger from 4,500 miles away.
This week, Kilbury got to shake that woman's hand and thank her for saving his life.
Kilbury was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disease six years ago, which only could be treated with a stem cell transplant.
The best match turned out to be Joanne Wilkie, a firefighter from Glasgow, Scotland, who donated the life-saving cells right before Christmas 2005.
Years later, the two exchanged letters through the registry that matched up their genes. And this week, she flew to Washington to spend Thanksgiving with the Kilburys today in Pasco.
'Poised to explode'
Kilbury felt strong as an ox seven years ago. An active outdoorsman, the then-33-year-old saw no reason to worry about his health.
Luckily, his wife, Shannon, urged him to get a checkup. The contracting officer for the Department of Energy took the routine exam provided to Hanford employees.
His blood test showed an anomaly. More tests followed during the next year, none of them conclusive. Finally a doctor ordered a bone marrow sample.
The diagnosis was very serious -- a rare bone marrow disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS.
The marrow is the body's blood cell factory, explained Dr. Edus Warren, the researcher who treated Kilbury. He welcomed his former patient and Wilkie in his lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle this week.
Leukemia is a cancer in which the bone marrow produces malignant blood cells.
"MDS is the last step before the bone marrow blasts off and makes malignant cells," Warren said. "The bone marrow is filled with bad guys poised to explode any second."
The type of leukemia produced by MDS essentially is incurable, he said. By the time Warren examined Kilbury at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Pasco man was six to 12 months away from developing that kind of leukemia, he said.
Ready to fight
Kilbury swore not to let leukemia take him from his family.
"I wasn't thinking about my disease," he said. "I was just thinking about my wife and kids."
Even if he had wanted to give up, his wife wouldn't have let him.
"I told him early on that he had no choice, that he had to survive," she said. "We had two small kids and I couldn't do it on my own."
At the time, the Kilburys spent four hours talking to Warren. He told them about a clinical trial in which a patient's immune system basically is replaced with one from a healthy donor.
Doctors extract stem cells -- primitive cells responsible for forming blood cells, including those that make up the body's immune system -- out of the donor's blood.
The new immune system cells attack anything that is foreign to them in the recipient's body, including his cancer.
But, Warren warned the Kilburys five years ago, the cells also could attack the healthy portions of Ryan's body and could kill him.
"I said, 'Oh my God, you're not selling this really well,' " said Kilbury, laughing at the memory.
But he had promised to fight the disease. And because he had no identical twin, a near-perfect match for Kilbury's genes had to be found somewhere.
Winning the raffle
Joanne Wilkie, 34, made a lifelong dream come true when she joined Strathclyde Fire and Rescue in her native Glasgow 12 years ago.
A few years after she got the job, she took part in a blood drive at work. At the time, she noticed a flier next to her for the Anthony Nolan Trust, a British stem cell register.
Wilkie didn't think twice about making herself available.
"It's in my nature to help people," the blonde said in a Scottish lilt this week.
"I wanted to be a firefighter since I was that high," she said, holding her hand out to table-top height.
Signing up only required giving a small blood sample. A couple of years passed.
Shortly before Christmas 2005, a letter arrived at her home. The envelope looked just like those that usually carried invitations for charity raffles that time of year in Scotland, Wilkie said.
She opened it absent-mindedly. But the letter wasn't asking for money. It informed her that she was a suitable donor for a man in Washington.
"Ryan won the raffle," Dr. Warren told Wilkie when he met her this week. "He won the million-dollar jackpot."
Wilkie again did not hesitate. An exam confirmed her as a good match and a week before Christmas, she received the first of four injections to boost her stem cell count.
The first shot made her feel pretty bad for a day -- "Sore joints and flu-like symptoms," she said.
But that passed. She went to London, where she spent two eight-hour days hooked up to a machine that extracted stem cells from her blood.
When her blood had done its last pass through the machine, a technician grabbed the bag holding her immune-system cells, put it in a cooler and got on a plane to Seattle.
Wilkie felt tired the next couple of days, but was back at the gym within the week.
When news came that a donor had been found, Kilbury went to the Seattle cancer hospital for weeklong chemotherapy.
The strong dosage would kill his immune system and take out a lot of the leukemia cells in the process. Wilkie's cells soon would take over and finish off the rest.
He was in the hospital for three weeks and came in for outpatient treatment for another two months. Daily blood tests showed steadily improving results.
The imported immune system was doing its job as well as anyone could hope -- it was killing the leukemia cells without damaging his healthy organs.
He was given drugs to partially suppress the Scottish immune system inside him. Just enough to keep it from destroying him, but not so much that the cells wouldn't kill the leukemia.
Kilbury showed some mild forms of what is called graft-versus-host-disease -- itchy skin, dry eyes and indigestion, but nothing more serious than that.
He has been off the immunosuppressive drugs for six months now. His strength has come back -- climbing trees while bowhunting for deer again.
His immune system is serving him well. When his two daughters bring a cold home from school, dad is the first to recover.
"You're kicking (the viruses') butt," Kilbury told Wilkie.
And the leukemia cells are gone and show no sign of returning, Warren said.
The registry Wilkie used allows donors to send anonymous cards to recipients right after they have given their stem cells. But donors and recipients must wait two years before they can learn each other's names -- and only if both sides agree.
Wilkie received a letter from Kilbury a few years ago. But even having a name and words on a page didn't strike home for her how much she had given to this stranger.
Then, last year, Wilkie received a friend request from Kilbury on Facebook, and he sent her his picture from when he was in a hospital bed, hooked up to a bag of her stem cells.
"Tears were running down my face," Wilkie said. "I could see physically that I'd given somebody life."
A trip was planned for the holiday that best expresses what neither of them could put into words.
"There are no words to describe how this feels," Wilkie said this week sitting next to Kilbury.
"I don't think there are enough words to say thank you," he said.
Register to be a donor: You can sign up to be a stem cell donor. The registry is called National Marrow Donor Program, but that doesn’t mean you have to donate bone marrow. It also handles less-invasive blood stem cell donations. Go to www.marrow.org or call 800-627-7692.