JGH Nurse donates stem cells to help save a stranger’s life

Emélie Elkrief, a Nurse Clinician in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the JGH, donating her stem cells for a transplant to a cancer patient
Emélie Elkrief, a Nurse Clinician in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the JGH, donating her stem cells for a transplant to a cancer patient

Donation to cancer patient praised as “heroic”

One day in late December, Emélie Elkrief flew thousands of kilometres to give a life-saving gift to a perfect stranger.

A Nurse Clinician in the Jewish General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Ms. Elkrief travelled to the United States to donate her stem cells to a leukemia patient. Though she knows almost nothing about the recipient, having the chance to potentially prolong the person’s life was reason enough to act.

“To me, it was easy to make the decision,” she says. “If I can help somebody get healthy, I’m going to do it.”

Now, Ms. Elkrief hopes her gesture will spur others to consider a stem cell donation too.

The journey that led to Ms. Elkrief’s donation began in Montreal four years ago. At the time, already a nurse at the Jewish General Hospital, Ms. Elkrief responded to an appeal on social media to provide a sample of her cells to help a little girl with cancer. Ms. Elkrief did a cheek swab, and heard nothing more.

That changed last October. The Gift of Life Marrow Registry, a non-profit group based in Florida, called to tell her that she appeared to be a match for a cancer patient with leukemia. The news set the clock ticking toward to a life-saving transplant.

First, Ms. Elkrief sent the organization a new swab to make sure she was still a match; the match was confirmed. After a full check-up, she got the all-clear in December. A few weeks later, Ms. Elkrief was on a flight to Florida.

She was aware that Canadians were advised to avoid non-essential travel during the pandemic. However, she felt that a stem cell donation to save a person’s life could not be classified as non-essential. Ms. Elkrief also set aside her own personal worries about travelling outside the country. Studies have shown that many people who put their names on donation registries back down when the call comes; Ms. Elkrief didn’t want to be one of them.

“It was stressful to fly,” she says. “But despite the state of the world right now, and the craziness of COVID, I didn’t see how I could refuse to travel, knowing that I could save a person’s life.”

In Florida, she received daily injections to promote stem cell growth in her bone marrow. On the fifth day, she was ready for the procedure. It resembled a lengthy blood donation. A catheter was placed in Ms. Elkrief’s left arm and hooked up to a machine that collected her blood’s stem cells. Then, her blood was pumped back into her body through a catheter in her right arm.

It caused mild discomfort, and the injections left her with bone pain she describes as “unpleasant but tolerable.” But they were minor compared to what her recipient was going through, she says.

“I knew that something specific to me — my cells — might help someone battle their illness,” When people ask her why she did it, she finds part of the answer in her upbringing. “It’s been embedded in me since I was a little girl to do good to others. Treat people like you would want to be treated.”

Ms. Elkrief’s actions were praised by Lucie Tremblay, Director of Nursing for CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, who called her donation an “exceptional gesture.”

 “Like many of your colleagues, the last few months have not been easy. COVID demands a great deal of effort from all nursing staff, which many have called heroic,” Ms. Tremblay wrote to Ms. Elkrief. “Your stem cell donation takes this term to a whole new level. Know that you have all my admiration.”

Ms. Elkrief, who is completing her Master’s degree at McGill University to become a Nurse Practitioner in Neonatology, hopes her actions encourage others to consider placing themselves on a stem cell registry. “I knew how something so simple could change somebody’s life,” she says, “just by swabbing your cheek.”

You can find out more about stem cell donations at Héma-Québec or the Canadian Blood Services.