Wednesday, April 23, 2014 · 3:39 a.m.

Finding Heather's hero

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Heather Parman hopes the story of her father’s battle with an aggressive bone marrow cancer—and the stem cell donor who attempted to save his life—will be an inspiration to others.

Her father, Eddie Parman, died in April 2012 after a struggle with Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which progressed into leukemia.

Click here to read a 2011 story about Eddie’s diagnosis.

He spent the fall of 2011 in Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, where he suffered adrenal hemorrhaging after initial chemotherapy treatments. He was transferred to Nashville’s Vanderbilt Medical Center, where he stayed until spring 2012.

Doctors said Eddie would require a bone marrow or stem cell transplant in order to survive.

Heather Parman as a child with her father, Eddie. (Photo: Contributed)

With family members unavailable to provide a match and Eddie’s health failing, they had no other option but the marrow registry.

"That meant we had to put our faith in the national registry," Heather wrote in an online post. "A stranger. Really? It felt a little hopeless."

But hope was on their side. Soon, a perfect match was found.

"In the registry, you have a one in 540 chance of matching somebody," Heather said. "But then it’s up to the donor to decide if they will donate those stem cells or not."

The transplant was a success.

"All was looking well," she said. "He just needed to make it 100 days post-transplant with no complications, and then he could go home."

Unfortunately, her father died before reaching the critical mark.

Throughout the following year, Heather battled through the stages of grief.

"When it first happened, I think I was still numb to it," she said. "I was in shock. I helped to keep my mom sane ... I handled it my own way. Then, it was the anger. Why did you die on me? The realization hit that I’m going to live longer without my dad than I had with him. I’m not going to be able to do all the father-daughter stuff down the aisle when I get married. After the numbness and anger, I accepted that it was part of a plan."

The donor
Heather always wondered about the anonymous donor who attempted to save her father’s life. However, law requires anonymity between patients/families and donors for at least a year after a donation is made.

But she knew he was a "sweet man" from the cards he would send to members of the family.

Heather would often write back, but to her, it wasn’t enough.

"I’d just always had this emptiness in my heart of not having met him yet," she said. "I wanted to thank him in person. A letter just wasn’t enough for me."

So she reached out.

"I just made the decision one day on a whim," she said. "I emailed the people at Vanderbilt and said, 'Please pass my information on to the donor.' If he wants to get in touch with me, great; if not, I understand, but at least I tried."

In a matter of days, she got an email response with a name: Josh Gilreath.

Heather's hero, Josh Gilreath, donated stem cells anonymously to help her father fight cancer. (Photo: Contributed)

"I looked him up on Facebook and saw his picture, and that’s when I got emotional about it," she said. "He’s such a family man, just like my dad was. He’s all about his little girl."

After a game of phone tag, Heather and Gilreath finally spoke on the phone for the first time on what would’ve been Eddie Parman’s birthday.

She recounted to him the timeline of her father’s illness and explained that his death had nothing to do with the transplant. Gilreath recalled to her the story of his donation.

With Gilreath in Bowling Green, Ky., and the Parmans in Chattanooga, they agreed to bring their families together at a central location—an O’Charley's—in Nashville a few days later.

"I felt like I had known him forever," she wrote. "I didn’t feel any awkwardness. All I felt was love."

Gilreath brought a framed photo showing a side-by-side image of him donating the marrow and another image of Eddie Parman receiving. He gave each family member the picture.

Heather plans to stay in touch with Gilreath, a man she calls "my hero."

The registry
A lot has changed for Heather since her father’s death. She said she feels much more open than she did before, much more present.

"Before my dad got sick, I was a very private person," she said. "Part of that has become just to be an open book about the entire situations. If someone asks me something, I’ll tell them what they want to know."

Through her story, Heather hopes to encourage others to sign up for the national registry of stem cell and marrow donors.

"It’s just as simple as filling out paperwork and getting a cheek swab," she said. "If you’re a match for someone, it’s not the most comfortable place to be because you’re essentially holding their life in your hands."

Locally, Blood Assurance is an affiliate of the Be the Match Registry (AKA, the National Marrow Donor Program). The organization is a worldwide network of individuals who work together to recruit bone marrow and/or stem cell donors to match with patients in life-saving transplants.

Potential donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60 years old and are required to meet certain health guidelines.

A simple questionnaire and cheek swab are the only requirements. Only potential matches are called to donate.

Click here for more information on the program.

"I just hope people can understand how to help and want to be someone’s Josh," Heather said. "Be someone’s hero."

Eddie Parman (right) with his wife, Judy (left), and youngest daughter, Heather (middle). Eddie died from leukemia in 2012. (Photo: Staff)
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