How a young man in Germany saved a Canadian cabinet minister’s life

An aggressive cancer and a stem cell donation brought Dominic LeBlanc and Jonathan Kehl together

Federal minister Dominic Leblanc and Jonathan Kehl of Bad Hersfeld, Germany, have never met in person, but both say they are linked for life. (Stéphane Richer/Radio-Canada)

He's not related to Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc in any way — but a young German says he's considered himself LeBlanc's genetic twin ever since he donated his stem cells to him.

Everything separates them — age, distance, personality. Still, Jonathan Kehl and LeBlanc now say they feel connected for life.

It's a bond that shows in LeBlanc's first message to the donor.

"Sie haben mir das Leben gerettet und ich werde ihnen für ihre Großzügigkeit auf ewig dankbar sein." In English, this means, "You saved my life and I will always be grateful for your generosity."

Jonathan Kehl said he grew up in a family of educators that views service as an important value. (Stéphane Richer/Radio-Canada)

LeBlanc suffered from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer that made him fear the worst.

He had to wait two years after his transplant to know the donor's identity.

One detail immediately jumped out at LeBlanc: the donor's youth.

"It came in an email from the hospital. There was his name and his address. What struck me was his date of birth. He was born in 2000. When he donated his stem cells, he was barely twenty years old," LeBlanc said in an interview.

Jonathan Kehl lives with his parents in Bad Hersfeld, a small town in central Germany.

Kehl's whole family was keenly interested in his stem cell donation. They wanted to know who the mysterious recipient was.

Above all, they wanted to know if the recipient was still alive.

When the good news came, Kehl said, his mother immediately searched the Internet for LeBlanc's name.

"Then she came up to me and told me, 'This person has a Wikipedia [page], it's a minister of Canada,'" he said. "That was the part that really shook me completely. It was unbelievable, that moment."

Barely fifteen days after being discharged from hospital following a stem cell transplant, Dominic LeBlanc was sworn in as president of the Queen's Privy Council. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Jonathan's side of the story began with an almost banal gesture — registering with the donor bank.

There was a campaign at his school in 2018. Pupils aged 16 to 18 were brought together to give samples.

"I registered, as [did] almost every other student," he said.

Dr. Sylvie Lachance of the Transplant Program at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital in Montreal chose Jonathan's profile from the German stem cell donor bank. It was perfectly compatible with that of her patient, LeBlanc.

"When you are Canadian, you will often appeal to Canadian and American donors, or often to European donors," she said. "Among European donors, the German bank of unrelated donors is formidable for the depth of its typing."

Despite her many years of practicing medicine, Dr. Sylvie Lachance said she is always amazed by how people are willing to make stem cell donations to complete strangers. (Stéphane Richer/Radio-Canada)

In LeBlanc's case, the challenge wasn't to identify a donor. It was to manage his very aggressive disease so that he could undergo a transplant.

LeBlanc remembers looking in a mirror in a hospital bathroom in Moncton, N.B., in the spring of 2019 and being alarmed by what he saw.

"I had completely yellow eyes," he said. The lymphoma had affected his liver.

LeBlanc said Moncton doctors had never confronted a case like his before.

"The kind of blood cancer I had was so rare that there weren't a lot of clinical trials on what kind of chemo to give," he said. "Doctors in Moncton, with the help of doctors in Montreal, literally tried to find a recipe."

Dr. Lachance said she believes LeBlanc had a narrow escape.

"You could say his life was in danger. We had a window of opportunity during which the disease responded," she said.

Back in Germany, Kehl was preparing for the swab at the time. For several days he had to inject himself with a drug that stimulates the production of stem cells in his blood — even though he's afraid of needles.

His mother worried, Kehl said. But even without knowing at the time who would receive his stem cells, he said, he already felt partly responsible for the well-being of the recipient, his future "genetic twin."

Jonathan's father Andreas, left, and mother Andrea, right. Jonathan's stem cell donation has fueled the Kehl family's dinner table conversation for over two years since the operation. (Stéphane Richer/Radio-Canada)

"Obviously we will be linked forever," LeBlanc said. "He made an extraordinary gesture that gave me a second life."

With advances in transplant techniques, it's easier than ever to identify a donor. But Dr. Lachance said she's still fascinated by what a donor will do for a complete stranger halfway around the world.

"I always say that it comforts us," she said. "It reconciles us with human nature."

Madeleine Blais-Morin

Pin It

Comments are closed.