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Calgary boy meets Texan stem cell donor who saved his life

A Texan in Calgary in July is not uncommon. But for one, the trip north closes the loop on a journey that ended with a reward far more valuable than prize money at the Stampede.

Donor always wondered how the child was doing

Erik Gracia meets the Texan stem cell donor who saved his life 1:39

Originally published July 7.

A Texan in Calgary in July is not uncommon. But for one, the trip north closes the loop on a journey that ended with a reward far more valuable than prize money at the Stampede.

Three years ago Erik Gracia, who was six years old at the time, was battling a relapse of acute myeloid leukemia  in Calgary.

Meanwhile, 3,000 km away in Texas a then 20-year-old Brent Lewelling was busy at college when he got a phone call that would change both of their lives.

The person on the other end of the phone told Brent he was a perfect match for a life-saving bone marrow transplant for a boy far away in Canada. The stem cells they harvested from his bone marrow saved Erik's life.

Bone marrow donor Brent Lewelling found time to play with Erik Gracia (in red) and his own daughter at the Gracia family home in McKenzie Lake. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Lewelling signed up to be a donor at a high school blood drive years before he got the call.

Three years on, the two families got together together Thursday for the first time over coffee under the morning sunshine in a back yard in McKenzie Lake. All smiles, not strangers for long.

"For years I wondered, 'man, I wonder how that family is doing?'", says Lewelling who's now 23 and a father himself. "We've always wondered."

Erik Gracia is now healthy and happy, his transplant a success and enjoying life as a nine-year-old boy, busy playing hockey, soccer and football. 

"I'd been waiting a year to get a bone marrow. I was happy and excited," says Erik. "I don't have to be attached to a pole anymore and I can run and jump in the water and the lake without putting Saran wrap on me."

Erik Gracia plays in his back yard in McKenzie Lake. He is now nine years old. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Erik's mom Carol Flores-Gracia says before Brent came along Erik's prognosis wasn't good. 

"Erik was dying of leukemia. They said we would need to look in the worldwide network to try to find a ten out of ten match. Brent was willing to go through surgery for my son and essentially save his life."

"Without him our son would not be here and I wanted to meet him and show him our appreciation and for him to recognize that this little boy is alive because of his gift."

Erik's mother Carol Flores-Gracia says there were not a lot of words when she met Brent Lewelling for the first time. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

The medical team that treated Erik say the story highlights the importance of bone marrow donors. 

"I'm so excited for Erik and his family," said Dr. Tony Truong, Erik's oncologist at the Alberta Children's Hospital.

"The only life-saving treatment in these situations is a bone marrow transplant, so we're grateful to young people like Brent who make these treatments possible," said Truong.

The Lewelling family will spend the rest of their trip to Calgary visiting the Calgary Stampede where they'll take in the grandstand show and chuckwagons before visiting Banff and Canmore together with the Gracia family.