A Newport News mom needed a stem cell donor. A man in Germany donated and became her “genetic twin”
On a recent Friday morning, Patti Minium Moonis, her husband and one of her daughters were in their Newport News living room when the phone rang from a small village near Berlin, Germany.
“There’s some people here who would like Facetime with you,” Patti Minium Moonis's brother-in-law, Harry said.
He was with Sascha Hruzik, the 30-year-old German steel worker whose bone marrow saved Minium Moonis from chronic myeloid leukemia, a cancer that originates in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow and attacks the bloodstream.
Transplant rules vary, but Minium Moonis was told she would need to wait a year before contacting her donor and a reply was not guaranteed.
In 2016, she went to a follow-up appointment and found a letter waiting for her. Hruzik had reached out first.
The two kept in touch through letters and small gifts but they hadn’t spoken until recently.
The half-hour FaceTime call was a flurry of tears, laughter, translated questions and answers.
“It’s an amazing moment for me to see you,” Hruzik said.
“I wish I could give you a hug,” Minium Moonis said.
Hruzik wanted to bypass the screen as well.
“It is unbelievable that you are so far away. I wish I could touch you,” he said.
“Well, you did touch her,” Harry Minium said. “Your blood touched her.”
“My blood is 100% you,” Patti said. “We are twins.”
“Yes, we are. Genetic twins. It’s an amazing feeling,” Hruzik said.
In 2013, Minium Moonis was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.
By the summer of 2015, four chemotherapy drugs had failed to stop the onslaught and Minium Moonis’s life depended on a bone marrow transplant.
According to the Be the Match website operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, 70% of patients who need a transplant do not match with a close relative.
Finding a non-related, closely matched donor can be a long and costly process, and not all matches are equal. Doctors look for donors with similar human leukocyte antigens (HLA) protein markers. HLA proteins act as gatekeepers that decide which cells belong in the body.
Although transplants can be done with “half-matches”—5 out of 10 matching markers—the best outcomes usually come from closer matches. Hruzik’s cells were a perfect 10 out of 10 match to what Minium Moonis needed.
Eight years have passed since Patti held what she called the “magic bag” containing Hruzik’s cells.
Minimum Moonis had to first survive pre-transplant chemotherapy regimen to wipe out her immune system so the donor cells could take over. Post-procedure, her body had to accept the cells.
“The odds at every step were astronomical,” she said.
But Hruzik’s cells knit themselves into Patti’s body, replacing both the cancer and her entire immune system.
Even though all she knew of her donor was his gender, age and location, he became her genetic twin — and someone she immediately thought of as family.
Patti began referring to him as “my Otto,” after her German grandfather.
“I would do it again tomorrow,” Hruzik told Patti during their Facetime call. “To save someone’s life, of course I would do it.”