UPMC nurse practitioner hailed 'healthcare hero' on live TV

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Johnathan Dodson, an intensive care unit nurse practitioner who treats COVID-19 patients at UPMC Altoona, recently met the woman who donated the stem cells that helped him overcome leukemia.

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A few weeks ago, nurse practitioner and former leukemia patient Johnathan Dodson interrupted a reporter’s phone interview to give his two young sons a hug and a kiss before they went to sleep.

The interview concerned the Claysburg native’s recent appearance as a “healthcare hero” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” because Dodson treats COVID-19 patients at UPMC Altoona.

The segment also featured Dodson’s surprise virtual meeting on the show with his own healthcare hero: the Texas woman who donated the stem cells that enabled Dodson to survive past his early 20s via a transplant.

“They’re here because of her,” Dodson, 36, said of the little boys he’d just sent off to bed.

In the interaction that followed the on-screen introduction to his donor, Dodson tried to explain his feelings about what the woman had done: how it hadn’t been limited to saving his life, but had also kept his parents, siblings and friends from losing him and had spread out to allow for the establishment of his own family, including those kids, Chase, now 7, and Karter, now 4.

“I don’t think she realized the ripple effects,” Dodson said.

He had long thought about a first encounter with Shannon Weishuhn of Rowlett, Texas.

“I had kind of prepared this thank-you speech in my head,” he said.

“(But) how do you thank someone who saved your life?” Dodson asked.

For Weishuhn, also a nurse, the donation was an “ancient” memory, Dodson said, based on an off-screen conversation he had with her, which included a virtual meeting with his family.

She had no idea of “the butterfly effect” that her action had on his world, he said, speaking of the idea that small occurrences can have big consequences. “That’s the message I was trying to convey,” he said.

Almost didn’t make it

Dodson almost didn’t make it to the transplant.

But in the process of getting through his difficulties with leukemia, he found his calling.

He was diagnosed initially in 2003.

He went through chemotherapy to “wipe out my immune system,” which also wiped out the cancer cells, he said.

The idea was to do an immune system reset, with the hope that the cancer cells wouldn’t grow back, he said.

He went into remission, but relapsed at the beginning of 2004, he said.

So he underwent chemotherapy again.

He relapsed again.

The third time he got chemo was in preparation for the transplant.

He nearly died multiple times, and at one point, his survival chances shrunk to about 3 percent, Dodson said.

The cancer had “broken into” his spine and his brain, he said.

Only a handful of prior cases had been treated successfully when that had happened, he said.

There were three options — a shunt in his head and more chemotherapy, spinal taps with chemo or hospice at home, he said.

His parents knew he didn’t want a shunt in his head, so that was out of the question, Dodson said.

His parents asked the doctors what they’d do if he was their son, and they recommended hospice, he said.

But a nurse stepped in and said “you need to give him a chance,” arguing that his survival from two previous crises should merit another try, Dodson said.

“That’s when my parents switched and opted for treatment,” Dodson said. “That sealed the deal.”

Once the decision was made, there was talk about sending him to Texas, the only place where the contemplated treatment had been done successfully, he said.

Dodson nixed that.

“If I was going to die, I was going to die here,” he said.

‘The reason I’m here today’

By that time, the nurses who took care of him at West Penn Hospital, now part of Allegheny Health Network, had “almost become family,” he said.

They — along with his donor — “are the reason I’m here today,” he said.

The nurses are also the reason he’s a nurse himself.

The transplant, however, didn’t suddenly make things all better.

“He had a really rough go (afterwards),” said Dr. John Lister, chief of the division of hematology and cellular therapy of Allegheny Health Network Cancer Institute and a member of Dodson’s transplant team.

Caring for patients after leukemia transplants is “as challenging as anything in medicine,” said Lister, who is a descendant of Joseph Lister, a pioneer in antiseptic surgery.

It’s challenging because the blood stem cells harvested from the donor’s blood, when injected into the recipient, create a new white-blood-cell immune system that attacks the recipient’s diseased white-blood-cell immune system, Lister indicated.

“It can be fatal,” he said. “And extremely debilitating.”

Doctors deal with it by giving powerful immunosuppressant medications, he said.

The direction of attack — the donor material attacking the recipient’s — is the opposite of the direction of attack with transplants of organs like kidneys, Lister said.

After those other transplants, the recipient’s immune system attacks the donor organ, he said.

Dodson was kept alive due to “the intensive efforts of many people,” Lister said.

Eventually, “the initial reaction dies down,” Lister said.

“He’s totally normal at this point,” Lister said of Dodson. “I would say he’s cured.”

The donor matched Dodson “in certain key genes that make the immune system work,” Lister said.

The harvesting of donor stem cells occurs after the donor is given a “growth factor” that causes those stem cells to leave the bone marrow and enter the bloodstream, Lister said.

Blood stem cells can become any of the three types of blood cells, given the right conditions.

When injected into the recipient, they “home” to the marrow where they’re needed, according to Lister.

There “they divide and repopulate,” he said.

Anyone willing to make a bone marrow or stem cell donation can go to bethematch.org.

It’s free to register, Dodson said. More ethnically diverse donors are needed, he added.

Last year, the web site helped facilitate 6,425 transplants, Dodson said.

“You could change someone’s life forever,” he said.

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