Senior Eph Tennis Player Rick Devlin's Perfect Match

Senior Eph Tennis Player Rick Devlin's Perfect Match

Rick Devlin's youngest brother Greg, now 13, had noticed late in the summer of 2007 that the bruises he received playing pickup basketball with his brothers and youth football seemed deeper and darker than normal. When his parents saw the unusual bruises they decided that Greg needed to visit the family pediatrician.

Lab results from a blood test showed severely low blood counts, and the pediatrician recommended that the Devlins take Greg straight to Children's Hospital in Boston for some testing.

"The hard part at this time was not knowing what this all meant," said Rick. "We knew that it was something bad because his doctor was concerned, and when you get sent to Children's Hospital for further testing you know it's serious. But Greg was brave throughout the initial period of diagnosis."  Children's Hospital is a part of the Harvard University teaching hospitals and it is also part of the world-renowned Dana Farber Cancer Center.

The possibilities of leukemia and several kinds of cancer were mentioned frequently at the time, but testing would need to be done to help focus on what the malady was so treatment could be started.

Greg underwent a bone marrow biopsy and more blood tests at Children’s. From these tests, doctors ruled out leukemia and other forms of cancer. Greg was initially diagnosed with aplastic anemia. Aplastic anemia is a condition where bone marrow does not produce sufficient new cells to replace blood cells. By the time Greg was diagnosed he had lost 80 percent of his blood cells. His doctors told him his platelet count was dangerously low and spontaneous bleeding was a high risk. There's no hereditary link to aplastic anemia and no one knows how and why it strikes some people and not others within a family.

 A bone marrow transplant from a sibling is the main course of treatment, if there is a match.  Doctors tested Rick and his other brother Chris, to see if either would be a match for a bone marrow transplant. It took two weeks to get the results back.

This was another stressful time for the Devlin family, because if there was a match and it took, then Greg would be cured forever and he would not have to live a vastly curtailed life on antibiotics. However, there is nothing one can do to assure a 100% match – it’s either there or it’s not. Siblings each have a 25% chance of matching. Siblings who match 100% completely on bone marrow are the best donors. Fingers were crossed that either Chris or Rick would be a match.

Greg called from Children's Hospital to tell Rick that his bone marrow was a perfect match. "At first when Greg called to tell me that I was the match I didn't really believe him, but I was relieved because we had a cure," said Rick. "My whole family had been wondering for two weeks about who it would be, if either of us. I just figured Chris would be the match because even though he and Greg are separated by six years, they are very similar and some people have even wondered if they're twins."

All through the 2007 fall tennis season, Rick wondered if and when the call to go to Boston and donate his bone marrow would come. Doctors knew they had a match so they decided to take extra time to see if Greg’s bone marrow would start producing new blood cells and look for any other complications before issuing a final diagnosis. While he very much wanted to compete for the Ephs, Rick was ready to drop everything and go when the call came in. "My teammates were great about all of this and very supportive the whole time," noted Rick. "I was glad that I told them early on."

Every three weeks Rick traveled to Boston to be tested to make sure he was not carrying any illnesses or diseases. It was vital for Rick to remain as healthy as possible and he focused intently on not being near people who were sick, even changing seats in the classroom to avoid students with a cold and avoiding situations that would introduce him to large groups of people who might be carrying other illnesses.

In late October 2007 doctors decided to move forward with the transplant. Before Greg received Rick's bone marrow he had to undergo extensive chemotherapy to knock out his immune system and prepare his body to receive the new bone marrow. Greg was placed on a special floor in Children's Hospital with special vents designed to keep out impurities and his visitation list was limited to immediate family only.

The first week in November of 2007 Rick was in the hospital for the bone marrow transplant. "The surgery was extremely painful, with 40 or so tiny holes drilled on each hip and the draining of a combined liter of bone marrow from the hips," recalled Rick. "Of course, I would do anything to help Greg so I was not complaining." Rick was confined to bed for a few days and even though he was on some heavy painkillers he could not turn on his side and lift his leg the first few days.

The procedure of capturing the liter of bone marrow from Rick put his pelvis in a precarious situation, where very little activity could result in a fractured pelvis. "I was told not to do any exercise or pick up a racket for 8 weeks and 12 would be better," recalled Rick. After eight weeks though Rick felt as though he could do some walking and from there he increased his walking speed and distance, eventually getting back to doing some light lateral workouts during Winter Study in 2008. "It took a good month until I felt my speed and quickness were back. I was glad that I was ready for the spring," recalled Rick.

While Rick was back in action and playing for the Ephs in the spring of 2008, Greg had been released from the hospital, but was confined at home. The slightest cold could have put Greg in the hospital because of his suppressed immune system. Last July, his immune system was back to normal and he could finally enter public places. 

"I can’t imagine going through this at that age. I'm just really happy and grateful that Greg is back in school with his friends, healthy, back to having a normal life and doing the things he loves such as playing basketball," said Rick.

It was later seen by the doctors that Rick and Greg being young and athletic aided in the recovery of both young men. Another perfect match.