OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- On Wednesday morning, a family from Arkansas sang Happy Birthday to a patient, even though his birthday was five months ago.
The song was symbolic. He came to Omaha, Nebraska for its medical expertise, but he’ll leave with a treatment and information even his mother never knew.
“Only about six percent have this type of cancer,” said Bruce Johanson, 60, from his Omaha outpatient room.
This spring, the Fayetteville, Arkansas man had flu-like symptoms and an upper-respiratory infection he couldn’t shake. A blood test indicated his white blood cell count was off the chart. He had cancer, specifically, mantle cell lymphoma.
Johanson’s doctor recommended Dr. Julie Vose, a hematologist/oncologist who specializes in stem cell transplants at Nebraska Medicine.
Wednesday morning, it was go time.
“These are the stem cells for Mr. Johanson,” said a nurse as a foggy haze floated out of the container. “We keep them frozen, 190 degrees Celsius, in liquid nitrogen. They’re pretty solid here.”
His family records every second on their phone.
“This is the water bath,” said the nurse as she placed the frozen stem cells into another container to thaw them. “We have it heated up to human body temperature.”
Each bag, three in all, carries the stem cells of his brother.
His twin brother, Blair.
“That changed things,” said Bruce, recalling when he first told doctors he had a twin.
As the stem cell transplant began Wednesday, Bruce made a video call to his brother, who is running their management consulting business in Arkansas.
“It’s going in,” said Bruce to his brother.
“You want to show him?” asked the nurse.
“Here you go,” said Bruce as he held the phone up to the lines with the stem cells flowing through it.
“It looks like the real thing to me,” commented Blair.
Bruce’s family, who was in the room, joked about how getting the twin brother’s stem cells could change him.
“We’re going to see if he changes color after he gets this,” said his wife, Debbie. “If he becomes a righty instead of a lefty because his brother is right-handed, and he’s left-handed.”
An identical twin is the jackpot for stem cell transplants. It’s a DNA copy of you, without the cancer.
But they didn’t know they were identical until a DNA test was done this year.
“Our mom always thought we were fraternal from birth,” said Bruce Johanson.
It turns out, mom was wrong.
So how did they break the news to her after the DNA test?
“We had a reveal party at her apartment and had cupcakes and had two blue jellybeans that looked alike. And she was still surprised.”
Bruce and Blair were born four minutes apart. They’ve always been close.
There’s an even stronger bond now, one cell at a time.
“See if any twin superpowers start manifesting themselves,” said Debbie.
As for the prognosis? Here’s Bruce’s take: “It will put the coffin on cancer and eradicate it. Kick bootie.”