'We are genetic twins,' Winnipeg man says on meeting his German stem cell donor

Jamie Benzelock met his German stem cell donor, Marco Kiunka, for the first time Thursday morning at the Winnipeg airport.
Jamie Benzelock, left, received life saving stem cells from Marco Kiunka in 2014. (Jennifer Schmidt)

It took 38 years for Jamie Benzelock to become completely healthy.

The Winnipegger was born with a rare blood disorder called neutropenia.

"I just had my four year re-birthday, so I am four. I call myself four," said Benzelock, who is 42.

On June 4, 2014, Benzelock received a life-saving stem-cell transplant. On Thursday, he met his donor, Marco Kiunka, who flew to Winnipeg from his home in Germany.

Exciting moment

"Oh it was so exciting! The minute before he came, my hairs were [standing] up," said Kiunka, who arrived in Winnipeg first.

"Nothing compares to coming down that escalator at the airport and he is standing there with my family already," said Benzelock, who flew in from Washington D.C., where he attends university.

"He was the first one I hugged, I don't think I let go for five minutes. It was very surreal for me."
Benzelock and Kiunka hug after they met in person for the first time on Thursday in Winnipeg. (Jennifer Schmidt)

Kiunka says he and his family signed up to be stem cell donors five or six years ago when a local German child was looking for a match. He said he never dreamed he would become a match for anyone, let alone someone in faraway Winnipeg.

"From the first minute I wanted to know who is it," said Kiunka. "Who is his family, where is he living. After the donation I said, 'We come together.'"

The two men were able to write letters to each other, but because of privacy policies, they were not allowed to know each other's identity or where they were from.

In his very first letter, he signed off, because he couldn't say his name, 'your genetic twin.' So to me, now, we're connected obviously … we are genetic twins.- Jamie Benzelock

"The letters were all pre-read … When he got mine and I got his, he introduced his family, where he was from and all that was blacked out," Benzelock recalled.

After two years of anonymous letter writing, the privacy period was up and they learned each other's identities.

However, the two had already formed a bond.

"In his very first letter, he signed off, because he couldn't say his name, 'your genetic twin,'" Benzelock said. "So to me, now, we're connected obviously … we are genetic twins."

On June 4, 2014, Benzelock received a life-saving stem-cell transplant. On Thursday, he met his donor, Marco Kiunka, who flew to Winnipeg from his home in Germany. 2:00

After two more years of emailing and texting, Kiunka and his family flew to Winnipeg to meet Benzelock and his family.

"We have extensive family that is kind of scattered throughout Canada, so they planned a family reunion," Benzelock said. "I suggested to him 'Why don't you come for this because you're family.'"

Kiunka, along with his wife and son, will be in Winnipeg for 10 days getting to know their new Canadian family. 

Through broken English, Kiunka has a message: "I can say 'People please do it, this is a chance to get a new family.'"
Kiunka, Benzelock and their families were all smiles after meeting Thursday morning. (Jennifer Schmidt)

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor