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Bonnie's gift

Canby native reflects on being part of medical history with a procedure that saved her sister

September 5, 2012
By Karin Elton , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Imagine if you were 10 years old and were asked to submit to painful medical procedures where you could get sick or even die. In 1963, Bonnie (King) Engesmoe of Canby didn't hesitate to donate her bone marrow to help her sick twin sister Nancy.

"I never questioned if I would do it, but of course I would do it, being twins, I was my sister and she was me," said Engesmoe, who works in the communications department at Southwest Minnesota State University. "And I am so grateful that I have had my twin at my side for all of these years."

The sisters are attending a dinner today in the Twin Cities honoring bone marrow transplant recipients in the U.S. As the first bone marrow transplant surgery in Minnesota, they've been asked to sit at the Mayo Clinic head table.

Article Photos

Photo by Karin Elton
Bonnie Engesmoe, who works at Southwest Minnesota State University, is being honored at a dinner today in the Twin Cities for bone marrow transplant recipients. When she was 10, Engesmoe donated bone marrow to her twin sister — one of the first successful bone marrow transplants in the U.S.

When the girls were 7 years old, they were fascinated by the airplane that would fly near their home spraying DDT to kill mosquitoes. They would chase it until finally the pilot gave them a good spray to make them go away.

"Mom must have given us 50 baths," Engesmoe said. "She even bathed us in tomato juice."

Engesmoe was unaffected by the deadly blast, but her sister began experiencing nosebleeds that wouldn't quit.

"We were vacationing at DisneyWorld and had to come back early because she had nosebleeds and bruising," she said.

During the following three years Nancy had about 100 blood transfusions.

"They pulled the high school kids out of school," Engesmoe said. "To this day, people tell me they gave blood to my sister. That was when it was arm to arm."

The family would have to drive to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to get her nosebleeds to stop. Diagnosed with hypoplastic anemia, she had her spleen removed and took numerous medications. Nancy's blood wasn't clotting properly. Her bone marrow wasn't producing platelets.

Nancy was a very sick girl during those years.

"For three years I couldn't play with her," Engesmoe said. "She led a sedentary life."

When the doctors suggested a transplant may be Nancy's only hope, the girls' mother let Engesmoe make the decision whether or not to be a donor.

"With so much bone marrow being taken, you could get sick," she said.

It was a totally new procedure in 1963. Most attempts were unsuccessful.

"We were guinea pigs back then," she said.

But for Engesmoe, there was no way she was going to say no.

"I just wanted my twin back," she said. "I wanted my best friend."

Engesmoe had to undergo the harvesting of the bone marrow procedure. It involved a large needle being pounded into the chest.

"We could hear the screams from the adults getting it done before us," she said.

Engesmoe was knocked out for the transplant operation, but Nancy had to be awake.

"There were six to eight doctors holding her down," she said.

The transplant was a success.

"She's been able to lead a normal life," Engesmoe said of her sister who is a retired teacher in Prior Lake.

Engesmoe said she is grateful for the experience.

"As a 10-year-old I had accomplished more than most in that short period of time," she said. "I saved a life."

Engesmoe said she is looking forward to meeting with the doctors and with transplant recipients.

"After experiencing this as a child, it will be nice as adults to visit with other recipients and donors who have also gone through what we did," Engesmoe said. "And being the first, I guess we were the beginning of many success stories."



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