Finding way to say thank you: Prince Albert cancer survivor meets stem cell donor in Poland

Chelsea Mitchell, Gosia her donor and her husband in Poznan, Poland.

Former Terry Fox Award winner and Prince Albert cancer survivor Chelsea Mitchell recently had the opportunity to meet the woman who helped save her life.

Mitchell is a childhood cancer survivor who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in July 2013 at the age of 12. She survived after receiving a peripheral blood stem cell transplant on March 20, 2014 from a donor in Poland.  In August 2023, she had a chance to meet the woman who provided the donation that saved her.

“It was a very, very emotional meeting, extremely emotional,” Mitchell said.

“I never thought in a million years I would meet her (this soon). Eventually one day, but I never thought it would be that soon. It actually worked out because this year in July was 10 years since diagnosis, so 10 years after I was able to meet her.”

Mitchell’s family members were tested through the One Match program after her diagnosis, but none of them were a match. That forced the family to look somewhere else.

“My donor, we had no idea who it was, where she was from or where they were from,” Mitchell explained. “After almost two years post-transplant, we were able to make contact with One Match. It’s up to the donor if they want to meet you.”

Making contact was difficult because the two didn’t share a common language, but thanks to online translator programs, Mitchell was finally able to get in touch with Gosia, the woman who made the stem cell donation. The two became Facebook friends, and years later, on Aug. 20, Mitchell left on a flight from Saskatoon to Berlin to meet family members who were attending a wedding in Denmark. From there, she travelled two-and-a-half hours by train to Poznan, Poland to meet Gosia and her family, who also travelled two-and-a-half hours to be there.

“She brought her husband and her two boys and her husband actually speaks English a little bit,” Mitchell said. “He hadn’t spoken English in over 10 years, so he translated as good as he could. Other than that, she has an app that she talks to that translates for us.

“I never in a million years thought I would meet her this soon,” added Mitchell, who is currently studying to be a nurse. “I knew one day I would make it happen so that I could meet her, but I never thought in the middle of university (I’d) get down there to meet her.”

Gosia’s generosity didn’t end with her first donation. She has had two sons since then, but before having her first child she contacted Mitchell to make sure it was okay.

“She wanted to make sure if I needed it again she could still donate,” Mitchell explained. “She can’t donate if she is pregnant, so she got our blessing before she had kids and I was like, ‘that’s so selfless of you. Like, who does that?’”

Mitchell said most recipients don’t meet their donors because they aren’t alive at the time of the donation. Those who did donate while they are alive, she added, often prefer to remain anonymous.

Mitchell said she’s glad that wasn’t the case with Gosia.

Chelsea Mitchell works a bake table at a recent Terry Fox Run fundraiser in the parking lot of Aurora Chiropractic.

“She actually told me, (and) I did not know this until I went down there, (that) she happened to come across an advertisement for donations and that’s how she found out about becoming a donor,” Mitchell explained. “She told her husband—at the time they weren’t married—but she told him, ‘I don’t know why, but I need to do this’ and it was less than six months before my transplant.

“She said the universe basically gave her a sign by putting that poster in front of her and she had to do it. She had the feeling she had to do it and, yeah, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”

Mitchell said it’s hard to find a way to say thank you to someone who saves your life, but she did her best by giving Gosia a necklace that shows their connection through two intertwined medallions.

“I wanted to say thank you, so I was like, ‘this is something tiny that shows her that I’m thankful,’ and then again, her husband translated it for her, but I put it on immediately and started crying,” Mitchell said.

The two families met at a small café and Facetimed with Mitchell’s parents, who got up at 5 a.m. Saskatchewan time for the call. Then, the group took the kids to a chocolate museum, went on a train ride, and had supper before parting ways.

Their time together started late after the train to Poznan was delayed. In fact, the trip almost never happened in the first place due to the CRA strike that affected passport offices.

“I made sure I could get got a passport as quick as I could,” Mitchell said. “Thank goodness they were off the strike at that time. It was right after the strike, and they were going very fast, luckily, because I had less than a month to get a passport.”

The two women hope to meet again, this time in Canada. Gosia said she wants to meet Mitchell’s parents, who couldn’t make the trip.

“I’m sure it’ll be very emotional then, too,” Mitchell said. “It was an emotional meeting, but it was also a very emotional goodbye because I didn’t want to leave, and trying to find words to say, ‘thank you,’ like, how do you?”

Mitchell returned to Canada on Aug. 29. She was awarded the Terry Fox Award in 2020.