HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Friends and family surprised Dennis Dick for his third birthday.
"I got him a card for a 3-year-old," said Carol Moore, a guest at his party on a recent Saturday night.
The cake was a giveaway that this wasn't a typical 3-year-old's party. Along with the words "Happy 3rd Birthday Dennis" it included the message "A journey of faith, hope, courage and strength."
Dick, a Hutchinson businessman, is actually 49. Three years ago he was at death's door waiting for a bone marrow donor to surface.
After the anxiety of waiting for a donor, on Sept. 30, 2009, Dick received bone marrow from Dawn Celles, a stranger who happened to be the best match for him.
On the Saturday night, Celles was planning to be in Hutchinson to meet Dick, who has survived acute myelogenous leukemia, because of her.
But, for the first time in years, Celles was ill and unable to make the 11-hour trip from her home in Natchitoches, La.
She spoke by phone and explained that Dick was the second person to whom she had donated her bone marrow.
"I was involved in a bone marrow drive several years ago for little boy in our community and that's how I got into the registry," said Celles. Instead of taking the bone morrow from her hip bone, they did a stem cell transplant through a vein.
"He has my DNA and blood type now," said Celles, who is also 49. It was uncomfortable getting prepared to be a donor; she had to have a shot every day for five days that built up her bone marrow and stem cells. It left her feeling like she had the flu.
"I couldn't complain," Celles said. "I was helping him. You do what you can do."
She was only told she was donating to a man the same age that had leukemia. They couldn't be in touch until after a year, though she could check on him through the National Bone Marrow Association, which handled the procedure.
While doctors had been hoping for a perfect match, Celles was as close as they could get.
"She was the best they could find. They wanted a 10 out of 10 chromosome match," said Janet Dick, Dick's wife. "She was an 8 out of 10 match. If they hadn't found her, Dennis would have died within weeks. It worked."
Dick was first diagnosed with leukemia in December 2007. He went through chemotherapy treatment and was in remission in January 2008. But the cancer returned, and he needed the bone marrow to save his life. So they went with Celles and doctors said he had a 25 percent chance of surviving the transplant.
"He has made it three years," Janet Dick said.
On this Saturday night, the Dicks went out to dinner and then returned to the home of friends. He was looking at his cellphone, checking out a college website, when he walked into a backyard filled with people who began shouting surprise.
Some of the guests said no one could surprise Dennis Dick, including his father-in-law Keith Branson.
"I told Janet men don't like surprises," Branson said.
But Dick was totally clueless that his family had coordinated such a gathering. Family, friends from work and church and people from all walks of life that have touched his were on hand.
"Celebrations are always exciting," said Chad Issinghoff, a friend from church. "This is a good opportunity to get together and be thankful for what the Lord has done."
That hasn't gone unnoticed by the Dicks. Dick said it was a scary time when they killed all his blood cells so that he could begin new life with Celles' DNA. He said he was so weak at that point. Janet stayed by his side in Kansas City, while family members cared for their children. The couple has two grown sons, Lance and Brett. Drake, 10, was just 5 when Dick was first diagnosed with leukemia.
"It was a long journey and we totally know God was with us," said Janet Dick.
Dick was scheduled to return to the doctor for a bone marrow biopsy to see how well his body is reacting to the donor cells and to determine if he is still cancer free.
The Dicks are relying on a lot of prayer.
Dick could have died three years ago. But, because of Celles he didn't.
"It's an amazing gift of life she gave him," Janet Dick said. "We know every day is a gift. It has brought our family close together. This has shown us how precious life is and how important it is to live each day."