Taking a Chance on a Cure

Matthew Damm excels at water polo, biking, and cross-fit. He says he has the life of a normal high school junior—but how it became that way feels, to his family, like a miracle.

When his mother, Dawn, was pregnant, she learned both she and her husband are carriers for thalassemia. This blood disorder affects as much as 1.7% of the world’s population, with various degrees of severity, and can cause organ damage, anemia, and a short lifespan.

Born with beta thalassemia major, a severe form of the disease, Matthew needed monthly blood transfusions. By age 3, excess iron had accumulated in his body, requiring all-night injections of medicine five times a week.

“I want every child to have what Matthew has: a life free of illness. It’s amazing to think how different things could have been for our family.” – Dawn, Matthew’s mother

Though they were living in San Diego, the Damms sought treatment at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, home to the nation’s largest and most advanced thalassemia program.

In 1998, the hospital launched the first nonprofit program to bank, free of charge, umbilical cord blood of babies with siblings who need stem cell transplants. The Damms wanted another child and knew cord blood from a healthy match could end Matthew’s suffering. But the baby could also be just as sick.

They decided to take their chances. In 2005, Hannah was born healthy and, though the odds were only one in four, she was a donor match.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Dawn says. “It was just incredible—a miracle.”

But Dawn was still concerned about putting Matthew through a debilitating round of chemotherapy, which would kill off his blood cells so Hannah’s could replicate and produce healthy blood. The knowledge, experience, and compassion of our Oakland team put her at ease and inspired the Damms the move forward.

“We decided it would be selfish of us not to give him a chance at a normal life,” she says.

With an 8-month-old baby and sick 5-year-old, they uprooted their lives and moved to Oakland. After weeks of chemo, Matthew underwent the transplant, and a waiting game began.

“It takes a while for the stem cells to start producing healthy blood,” Dawn says. “The hospital staff took great care of Matthew, but he was weak and thin, and we were very worried.”

Dawn crossed off square after square on her calendar, each day’s blood draw indicating that Matthew wasn’t getting better. After about a month, he suddenly showed a slight improvement; the next day, even more. Hannah’s stem cells were doing their job.

“It is the biggest blessing,” Dawn says. “When he was born, I never imagined this. I thought he would be sick his whole life.”

To date, Matthew is one of nine thalassemia patients who have received a sibling cord blood transplant at the hospital, all of whom are cured. An additional 18 have received bone marrow transplants, with a success rate of about 90 percent.

Dawn says she’s impressed by the ongoing search for cures and eternally grateful to the hospital.

“I want every child to have what Matthew has: a life free of illness,” she says. “It’s amazing to think how different things could have been for our family.”