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Priest's adult stem cell donation saves life of Kentucky mother of 2

By John Baccala
June 28th, 2006
The Catholic Key (

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (The Catholic Key) Like all priests, Father Ken Riley's mission is to save souls. Thanks to a decision he made years ago, he saved a life.

Father Riley, pastor at St. Bernadette Parish here, finally got to meet the woman he saved nearly three years ago. The surprise meeting with Lee Ann Collins happened during the Adair County (Ky.) Relay for Life rally June 9. Before that, the two had only spoken by phone.

Father Riley flew to Nashville, Tenn., earlier that day, where he was greeted at the airport by Collins' mother, Sue. Together, the two drove to the Adair County High School stadium, where Father Riley hid while the Relay for Life program started.

The chairperson of the Relay for Life event called Collins to the stage. She asked her to give a special award to Father Riley when the two met.

"I really hope to meet him, it would be an honor," Father Riley recalled Lee Ann saying that night.

The event chairperson then said, "No, you're going to meet him tonight. Father Riley, will you come out please?"

Collins' jaw dropped. Several hundred in the crowd, all aware of the surprise meeting, stood and applauded.

"I was so surprised, I had no idea they planned this," Collins said.

Meeting Lee Ann face-to-face was "delightful," Father Riley said. Collins didn't know Father Riley three years ago. Collins had leukemia and her doctors were looking for stem-cell donors.

Father Riley was a potential match.

He was already in the Heart of America Bone Marrow Registry's databank. In 1996, Father Riley donated bone marrow to an Indiana man. That man died just a few months later.

Father Riley's inspiration for becoming a donor came from two sources, a second grade student at Our Lady of the Presentation School, and his father. The second grader's name was Tommy Eberle and he too, suffered from leukemia.

"We held a bone marrow drive for him and I was one of the donors to get on the registry," Father Riley said. "I spent the day there holding other people's hands who were less-than-liking the needle prick for a blood donation."

He wasn't a match for Eberle, but he did match the Indiana man.

Growing up, Father Riley watched his diabetic father take insulin twice a day. Since then, his father has had a kidney transplant and a pancreas transplant and, technically, is no longer diabetic. That experience left quite an impression on him.

"I'm a big organ donation guru," Father Riley said emphatically. "I keep telling people this is important."

Father Riley is a big fan of the bumper sticker that says "Don't take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here." He said that message frequently "makes homilies with me."

In the spring of 2003, Father Riley filled out the consent forms to be a donor for Lee Ann Collins. Only, he didn't know her name.

"You don't know (who you donate to) for the first year," Father Riley said. "Both parties have to sign a consent form saying 'Yes, we want to communicate with each other,' but you don't have to."

Collins knew, if she lived through that one year waiting period, she had to know who saved her.

"One year to the date, I called the University of Louisville (where her procedure was done) and I'm like, 'OK, it's been one year, I want to know who my donor is,'" Collins said.

Still, before Father Riley could be Collins' donor, there were other hurdles to clear.

Father Riley was leaving to study canon law in Washington, and couldn't miss classes. Collins relapsed and went into isolation. She wasn't ready to receive a donor. Finally, a July donation date was set.

For a week prior to his donation, a home-health nurse would come to the Washington Theological College residence where Father Riley lived and give him a daily injection of filgrastim, a drug that promotes the growth of white blood cells. Then, he would go to his classes.

Finally, his donation day came. That Friday, July 11, 2003, Father Riley took a cab to the Georgetown University Hospital for the nearly seven-hour procedure.

"I was hooked up to a machine, and basically, it was like a blood donation," Father Riley said. "They put a needle in one arm and it runs out into three tubes.

"It separates the stem cells, the plasma and the rest of the blood by-products, and I received two of them back in my other arm."

"The stem cells went into a separate bag, and then a courier took them to the hospital where the recipient was," he said. "And Lee Ann received them the next morning."

With the stem-cell debate raging across Missouri and the world, Father Riley thought this would be a good time to clear up misconceptions about stem-cell research and the Catholic Church's position on the issue.

"Catholics are not anti-stem-cell," Father Riley said, the tone of his voice rising with each word. "It makes for a good sound bite on the news, but nothing could be further from the truth.

"Catholics are very much for stem-cell research and the treatment options developed from adult stem cells, placenta blood, umbilical cord blood.

"The only time the church is anti-stem-cell is when embryonic stem-cells are used because we believe that is a human life and all human life has dignity. Therefore, to destroy an embryo to save another person, is destroying life, which we don't believe in," he said.

One year from the date of her stem-cell transplant, Collins called Father Riley. The two talk on the phone frequently. Collins has sent cards and often talked about coming to Kansas City to meet him. Still, she remains "totally shocked" by their surprise meeting.

"What can you say, what words can you say to someone who saved your life?" Collins said, emotion running through her voice. "At the time I was diagnosed with leukemia, my daughter was in fifth grade and my son was a freshman in high school.

Father Riley's story has been well-documented. Several newspapers, including the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal, picked up the story. A television station in Bowling Green, Ky., covered the Relay for Life event and provided a copy of the story to the television station in St. Joseph, where Father Riley's family could see it.

For his part, Father Riley takes no credit for being a life-saver. Making a decision like that was a no-brainer.

"If there's something I can do to help somebody else, then I want to do it," he said. "Let's not dilly-dally, if this is something I am able to do, let's do it."

Collins is obviously thankful for the decision Father Riley made and prays others will make the same decision.

"If more people would go out and register for these organ donations and stem cell drives, it's amazing the difference you can make," she said.

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