A stem cell transplant from his mom helped him live to meet his own child

September 5, 2023
Blood and stem cell recipient Adam Coletta holding his daughter

Adam Coletta ultimately needed two stem cell transplants, and numerous transfusions of blood and platelets, to beat leukemia

Before you read Adam’s remarkable story...

Did you know financial donations also support patients like Adam in need of blood, platelets and stem cells? Your financial gifts will be put to work immediately to educate and recruit blood, plasma and potential stem cell donors, because we vitally need more of them to support patients like Adam.

Click here to give financially in support of patients touched by blood products

It’s a week Adam Coletta will never forget. First, he learned that his wife, Natasha, was pregnant with their first child — an emotional moment, as the couple had been hoping to grow their family for some time. But just three days later, the excitement Adam felt for his family’s next chapter was quickly shattered by some gut-wrenching news about his own health.  

Blood work had revealed that Adam’s white blood cell count was far above normal. He was soon reeling from a diagnosis of blood cancer.  

“The truth is, that week I was overjoyed and petrified at the same time. [Specialists] told me my best treatment option for my acute lymphoblastic leukemia was aggressive chemotherapy, but the end point we were looking for was a stem cell transplant,” shares Adam. “That meant my medical team would have to search for a matching donor.”  

So began Adam’s multi-year battle with a life-threatening illness, where blood and platelet donors, as well as two different stem cell donors, gave him a fighting chance to get better. It’s thanks to all of them that he’s alive to watch his daughter, now five, grow up — and to encourage all who are eligible to join Canada’s Lifeline.


Join the stem cell registry

Stem cells from Adam’s mom help him meet his newborn daughter 

Stem cells, specifically blood stem cells, are immature cells that can develop into any cell present in the bloodstream. Transplants of donated stem cells can be used to treat more than 80 diseases and disorders. At any given time, hundreds of people in Canada are waiting for such transplants. Our stem cell registry, and others like it around the world, match patients with willing volunteer stem cell donors. 

In a minority of cases, a family member may be a suitable match, and Adam’s mother and sister both got tested to see if they could donate for him. His mother was the closest match within his family, and she donated her stem cells to him in early 2018. Like most stem cell donors, she went through a non-surgical process similar to donating platelets or plasma (which are components of blood). 

How does stem cell donation work?

Today, most stem cell donors donate through a non-surgical procedure called “apheresis.” First, in the days leading up to donation, they have several injections of a medication to stimulate the release of stem cells into the bloodstream. Then to donate, they are connected to an apheresis machine at a hospital. The machine removes the stem cells while safely returning other blood components to the donor. Apheresis is a commonly used procedure which is also used for donating plasma and platelets, though donating stem cells takes longer (normally a few hours).

Learn more about how stem cell donation works, and join the stem cell registry if you’re eligible.

The transplant from Adam’s mom made it possible for him to welcome his beloved daughter, Marquesa, several months later. Since most patients seeking a stem cell transplant do not find matching donors within their own families, Adam was incredibly grateful for this transformational gift.

blood and stem cell recipient, Adam Coletta, dancing with his mom
In early 2018, Adam Coletta, right, received a transplant with donated stem cells from his mother, Ida, left. Her lifesaving gift enabled him to meet his daughter when she was born several months later.

“I understand now, as a parent, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for my daughter. And I saw that first-hand from my mom,” says Adam.  

But just as the pieces of his family life and busy career at a large bank were coming back together, Adam learned his cancer had relapsed. 

A new search for a stem cell donor

The relapse meant Adam would need to undergo another stem cell transplant. For the best outcome, his doctors recommended looking to a donor outside the family matched to him by Canadian Blood Services' Stem Cell Registry.  

A lot happens behind the scenes in the period before a stem cell transplant. In some cases, the wait may be prolonged because the transplant team determines the patient’s body isn’t ready for the procedure. In others, a patient may wait because a matching donor has been identified but cannot be reached (which is why we recommend people keep their contact information up to date after joining the stem cell registry). And sometimes, a patient must wait because a matching donor has not been found at all. 

“I naively thought that because my [ethnic] background wasn’t that complex, that it would be fairly straightforward to find a match for me on the registry, but I still waited a while,” says Adam. “I was nervous, because before a match was found, we were starting to question what we’d do to bridge the gap of me staying in remission and me actually getting my transplant.” 

How does stem cell matching work?

Unlike blood and plasma, where patients can often receive donations from many different donors with a matching blood type, stem cell donors are matched to patients according to the compatibility of inherited genetic markers called human leukocyte antigens (HLA).

The best transplant outcomes happen when a patient’s markers are a close match with the donor’s. It’s often like a search for a needle in a haystack, and a patient’s best hope of a match may lie with a donor of similar ethnic background.

To make as many lifesaving matches as possible, we need all who are eligible to join Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.

What further complicated Adam’s treatment was the fact that he lived with a heart defect called bicuspid valve. A surgery that replaced his aortic valve with a mechanical one requires him to take blood thinning medication for the rest of his life. 

Transfusions of red blood cells and platelets were essential for Adam during his chemotherapy, transplant preparation and recovery. Over the course of his cancer journey, he estimates he received more than 100 treatments involving blood components. At times, he was receiving transfusions daily.  

blood and stem cell recipient, Adam Coletta, showing a tattoo on his arm saying ‘blood thinner’
Like many patients undergoing leukemia treatment, Adam also heavily relied on transfusions of red blood cells and platelets during his journey. Because he lives with a lifelong condition that requires him to take blood thinners, the regular transfusions were profound.

“The only thing that could have made that period worse would have been to hear that ‘we don’t have blood products available.’ I don’t know what I would have done. Because of donors, thankfully, that never happened,” shares Adam.  

‘I would have missed writing the best chapters of my life’   

When your life hangs in the balance, even a short wait for a stem cell transplant can feel like an eternity. Adam was incredibly relieved when a willing stem cell donor was identified for his own second transplant. 

“The day I learned there was a positive 9/10 stem cell match for me, felt like I was drowning and then someone had thrown me a life vest,” recalls Adam. 

blood and stem cell recipient, Adam Coletta, with his wife and daughter in the outdoors
Adam Coletta, left, with his wife Natasha and daughter Marquesa on a family trip. Nurturing his daughter’s love of the outdoors and adventure through travel has become a treasured activity for Adam.

Nevertheless, recovery following that second transplant was long and difficult. Adam coped in part by writing and blogging about his experience, and he hopes his writings may also help other patients navigating a blood cancer diagnosis or stem cell transplant.  

His four-year cancer journey has also given him new perspective on both how precious time is, and how vital donors are.  

“Without them, I would have never met my daughter, walked her to kindergarten or attended a dance recital. I would have missed writing the best chapters of my life.” 

Related stories