Partner's medical scare inspires football coach to run donor drives

Kamloops Broncos coach began recruiting potential stem cell and blood donors after partner's aplastic anemia diagnosis.

January 25, 2021
Braden Vankoughnett, head coach of the Kamloops Broncos Football Club and a recruiter of potential stem cell and blood donors, stands on the sidelines of a football game.

Braden Vankoughnett, seen here in the foreground at a football game prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been actively recruiting potential stem cell and blood donors.

The head coach of a Canadian Junior football team in Kamloops, B.C. is driving support for Canadian Blood Services after his partner ― another top-level athlete ― became a patient in need herself.

Braden Vankoughnett and Kelsey Thorkelsson moved from Winnipeg, Man. to Kamloops, B.C. in 2015 to advance their athletic careers. Braden joined the Kamloops Broncos Junior Football Club as a linebacker while also pursuing a degree in education at Thompson Rivers University.

Kelsey joined the women’s soccer team at Thompson Rivers University, the TRU Wolfpack, while studying nursing. She retired from soccer in 2019 and after a period of study abroad, began her nursing career. In February 2020, Braden was named the Broncos’ new head coach.

Woman in team uniform passes a soccer ball forward

Kelsey Thorkelsson’s athletic career soared playing soccer with the TRU Wolfpack women’s team. Now retired from the game, she needs regular blood transfusions to treat aplastic anemia and may also require a stem cell transplant.

Everything seemed to be going in the right direction for the high-school sweethearts. But that all changed in September 2020. Kelsey felt like she had a cold coming on, so with COVID-19 cases on the rise across Canada, she went to get checked out. To her surprise, blood tests revealed low levels of white blood cells, platelets and hemoglobin.

Kelsey was ultimately diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia. The condition affects bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside the bones, drastically reducing its ability to produce blood cells. She is currently in Vancouver as an outpatient at Vancouver General Hospital, and needs regular blood transfusions to supply her body with adequate red blood cells and platelets. She may also require a stem cell transplant, with a donor arranged through Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.

Kelsey’s diagnosis blindsided the couple.

“Kelsey’s medical condition came out of nowhere,” says Braden. “She went from being a super active, super healthy top-level athlete in Canada one day, to needing platelets and blood transfusions every other day to survive.”

Kelsey Thorkelsson throws a soccer ball in play from the sideline.

Kelsey Thorkelsson played varsity soccer as a nursing student in Kamloops, B.C. She now needs regular blood transfusions for aplastic anemia.

“I’ve been shocked to see the reality of what illness brings,” adds Braden. “It’s made me realize how lucky my family and I have been with our health. Kelsey’s experience over the past few months has been an eye opener.”

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The need for blood products hits home

While Kelsey was in the hospital, Braden learned about the national blood inventory and the constant need for blood, as well as about Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.

At any given time, there are hundreds of Canadian patients from varied ethnic backgrounds in need of a matching stem cell donor.

“I signed up for the adult stem cell registry right away,” says Braden, who also discussed the need for potential stem cell and blood donors with the players on the Kamloops Broncos football club.

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Kamloops Broncos Football Club head coach Braden Vankoughnett stands on a field beside his girlfriend Kelsey Thorkelsson, who has aplastic anemia and needs regular blood transfusions.

Braden Vankoughnett is raising awareness of the need for potential stem cell and blood donors as head coach of the Kamloops Broncos Football Club. His efforts followed his partner Kelsey Thorkelsson’s diagnosis of aplastic anemia, for which she needs regular blood transfusions.

“I coach a diverse group of young men aged 17 and up. I let them know that in addition to donating blood, they are within the right age group, 17 to 35, and can sign up on the stem cell registry as another way to help patients.”

Only about 25 per cent of patients waiting for a stem cell transplant will find a match within their own families. The rest, 75 per cent of patients, will turn to Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell registry in the hope of finding a matching unrelated donor. In many cases, their lives depend on it.

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Creating awareness and taking action

Seeing what’s at stake for Kelsey has made Braden determined to raise awareness of the need for potential stem cell and blood donors.

“I got nervous when I saw a chart of the national blood inventory that showed Kelsey’s blood type only had about 5-6 days on hand,” says Braden. “I had never donated blood before, but I booked an appointment right away and gave blood for the first time in October.”

Am I eligible to donate blood?

Braden has organized the first of several group donations at an upcoming event in Kamloops on January 26. He plans to make his own second donation, along with more than a dozen players who have made appointments to donate at the same time.

While that donation event is full, Braden hopes his story inspires more people to join Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell registry and to book appointments to donate blood in their own communities in the months ahead. In addition to members of his football team, Braden is reaching out to other teams in the league to get involved.

“This initiative will get bigger than me and my team,” he says. “The British Columbia Football Conference includes six teams that are based in Kamloops, Kelowna, Chilliwack, Langley, Victoria and Nanaimo.

“The football conference wants to take this on as our league initiative. We’ll create a friendly competition for blood donors and new stem cell registrants and get players on the team, their extended family members and the football community involved.”

To help track their successes, the teams will drive their supporters to join the stem cell registry or book appointments to donate blood through special links available on the BCFC website.

“We’ve got lots of people to help, and are ready to kick off this initiative and help as many people as we can,” says Braden.

Donating blood is a quick and easy way to make a meaningful difference in your community. And every person who registers with Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry is providing hope to patients in Canada and around the world who need a matching stem cell donor. To join the stem cell registry, Canadian Blood Services encourages people aged 17-35 to sign up online to have a swab kit delivered in the mail. To donate blood, book online, or download the GiveBlood app.

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