O'BRIEN: Quincy man thankful to have guardian angel

Posted: Mar. 5, 2013 8:08 am Updated: Apr. 16, 2013 9:15 am

By DON O'BRIENHerald-Whig Staff Writer

The fact Quentin Karlstrand was able to celebrate his 66th birthday last month was no small miracle.

Karlstrand was diagnosed with leukemia eight years ago. After chemotherapy failed to arrest the disease, he was forced to find a match for a bone marrow transplant.

Family members were no match. No one on the national registry, the world's biggest, matched either.

"I wasn't doing real good," he said. "It was kind of depressing."

Little did Karlstrand know that his life was about to be saved by a woman overseas. In the spring of 2006, Karlstrand found a match in a 25-year-old from Germany. Once she found out that she was a match, she agreed to be a donor. As a result, Insa Hemkes of Moormerland, Germany, wound up saving Karlstrand's life.

"I call her my guardian angel," Karlstrand said. "She's just incredible."

Incredible can sum up the circumstances that brought Hemkes and Karlstrand together. Five years before she learned she was a match, Hemkes and her father went to see if they could help out a local boy who needed a transplant. Already blood donors, Hemkes and her father wound up on the bone marrow registry as well.

That trip, which was sparked by a newspaper article on the boys' plight, wound up being a life-saver for a man thousands of miles away.

"It's a miracle driven by God as far as I'm concerned," Karlstrand said. "There was only one person in the world who was a match for me."

Karlstrand had his stem cell transplant on April 4, 2006. He spent a month in Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He and his wife, Jeanine, wound up living in the St. Louis area close to the hospital for three months after that so that doctors could monitor Karlstrand's progress.

He eventually moved back to Quincy, retiring as an executive with the Mississippi Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America in 2009.

He didn't know who his donor was until 2011. Germany requires its donors to wait five years before finding out who they helped. Hemkes had questions and Karlstrand wanted answers. He immediately wanted to know who to thank for saving his life. When he was asked if he wanted to know who his donor was, Karlstrand didn't hesitate to say yes.

As a result, a wonderful friendship has blossomed. The Karlstrands went to visit Hemkes and her family in September. Little did Karlstrand know at the time, but that trip planted the seeds for a return trip by Hemkes and her mother.

Karlstrand's family kept the visit a secret from him. Everyone from his 7-year-old granddaughter on up kept their lips zipped when it came to Hemkes' visit to Quincy. On Feb. 18, as Karlstrand hosted family for a birthday luncheon, Hemkes and her mother arrived to surprise him.

From there, Hemkes went on a whirlwind tour of the Gem City. She received a standing ovation from Quincy Rotary Club, dipped her hand in a frozen Mississippi River and even had a chance to fire up Karlstrand's snowblower once all of the snow hit during her visit.

"I would not be here if it hadn't been for Insa and what she did for me," Karlstrand said.

In his retirement, Karlstrand is trying to give back. He volunteers his time as a stem cell courier for the National Marrow Donor Program, the same program that helped get his stem cells from Germany to St. Louis. About twice a month, Karlstrand makes trips for the program.

"I never get to see the donors or the recipients, but I do get to see the staffs that processes the cells," he said. "I tell them my story and tell them that they're doing great work and show them pictures of Insa that I have. I thank them for what they're doing."

They're all helping save lives like his.


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