Kristine Ahlberg

I was the bridge

An unbelievable opportunity allowed Kristine to be a bridge between two sisters who hadn’t seen each other in 10 years and who were willing to share stem cells to save one of them.

portrait of Kristine Ahlberg, nurse at UC Davis Health


I would say I've had many. Most of the time when you think of nursing you do think about the bedside nurse, and I did bedside nursing for eight years. And so the bulk of my career has been outpatient. So in 2008, I had a patient, a lady in her 40s who had four children, a husband. They had immigrated to the United States so the family was undocumented. And working with the bone marrow registry in Mexico, we were able to do HLA typing on her siblings and found that one of her sisters matched.

So this was the first time that we had worked with this registry and I was so grateful that I was able to forge a relationship with the director of BHLA Lab and the bone marrow registry there. And we were able to work with them to get the sister harvested, but somebody needed to bring her STEM cells back to United States. So that was my job. And the beauty of what I did was I really could close the loop with my patients, be with them through the whole pre-transplant, help them with their workups. Get the donors identified, actually meet the donors, see that product, bring it back to UC Davis knowing that it was going to be infused.

So I was able to fly to Mexico City and meet this woman, sister. They had not seen each other for probably 10 years. And I realized when I was there that I was the bridge between the two. Knowing how I feel about my own sister, I could not imagine being separated for that period of time. They had written letters to one another and the sister here in the States knowing that she could never go back to Mexico and then come back to the States. She knew that when she left her own country, she wouldn't see her family again and the family in Mexico knew they were never going to see her again. And the sister actually said to me, "You are my eyes. You've seen my sister. Tell me what she looks like. Tell me how she is." And it was moving at the time. But over the years, I've thought about it more and more, just the physical separation, the emotional separation, and knowing that her STEM cells were going to be taken back very carefully under my wing to her sister, to be infused. To me, it wasn't just closing the loop for that family, which I loved doing, it was actually being the eyes and the ears for both. I was the bridge between the two of them.

That's just unbelievable.

It was pretty unbelievable. Of course I was very focused on the nursing process, the tubes, the blood, the labels, making sure everything was exactly with all the regulations that had to be in place to make sure the product was correct. And then bringing it back to the United States in an ice chest just like you see on TV. But it was the human side of that that has stuck with me more than anything. I do every now and then I think, "What does that separation mean to them? And yet her sister STEM cells are in her body." So even though they're separated, they really physically are not in that sense of her STEM cells, being there having been grafted.