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First successful bone marrow transplant patient surviving and thriving at 60

Editor's note: This interview is a side story for Thank Uncle Sam for life-saving bone marrow transplants, a look at how federal funding has advanced important discoveries.

In 1960, Nancy Lowry was six years old and suffering from aplastic anemia—a blood disorder in which bone marrow fails to create enough new blood cells—that she contracted from taking seizure medication. "What I remember is being really sick," she recalls. "I always knew that I had almost died."  Lowry received a bone marrow transplant from her identical twin sister, Barbara, who had to endure 50 needle punctures to extract enough marrow.

E. Donnall Thomas, who pioneered the field of bone marrow transplantation, served on the team of physicians for Lowry's transplant procedure at University Hospital in Washington state. Her transplant was funded in part by a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission (which was funding research in the 1950s and '60s on body irradiation), although Lowry's particular procedure didn't require radiation.

"I remember when it became apparent that the transplant was successful," Lowry says. "There was this sense of wonder, awe and amazement." Nancy began getting better within a week or two following the August transplant, she says, and after a few months recovering in the hospital, Lowry returned home. She returned to school after the holiday break.

Her procedure became the first successful bone marrow transplant, she says.

Lowry, now 60, lives in the Pacific Northwest, and has spent her life caring for others as a nurse. "I was born wanting to be a nurse," she says. She spent much of her career working with kids, in particular, children with special needs. After working as a public health nurse she now works as a school nurse.

A few years ago, Lowry began researching old newspaper and journal articles surrounding the first transplants in the 1950s and '60s, and was struck by how amazing the transplants had seemed. "Back then, leukemia (cancer of the blood cells) was like a death sentence," she says. "Some newspapers—as soon as they started doing transplants—said that there would be a cure for leukemia within 10 years." Others said that transplants might not be a certain cure, but at least there was hope.

This research "made me realize even more that it was a miracle," Lowry says.

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