Stella Raco calls herself “the woman the world saved.” A bold statement? Maybe. But in this case, she’s not far off.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at 29, Stella underwent chemotherapy and radiation and was declared in remission in June 2008. But one year later, MRIs showed a spot on her rib. The breast cancer had metastasized to her bone marrow and in October 2009, Stella was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

From March to October 2010, Stella received two transfusions of two units of red blood cells each.

“I remember when I had that first blood transfusion,” says Stella. “I was so scared, I didn’t know how I was going to feel. Well, it was amazing! I went from feeling so tired to my old self again. My energy was back, my smile was bright, and I could continue on, full force.”

In January 2011, the Woodbridge, Ontario, resident was scheduled for another transfusion but doctors halted it. They found her immune system was producing antibodies that reacted to an extraordinarily common protein antigen on donated blood. To put this in context, virtually every person on this planet carries this particular protein antigen. To not carry it, or to react to it, is so rare that there are perhaps a few handfuls of people around the world who share this trait.

In fact, out of Canadian Blood Services’ 415,000 donors, only one donor matched Stella. And this donor was not available. By this point, Stella was dangerously anemic.

Her hemoglobin levels had dropped to 60s g/L; a woman her age should have a hemoglobin level above 125 g/L.

Frozen units of this extremely rare blood were taken out of inventory. But given her condition, Canadian Blood Services staff in Toronto quickly realized that they needed to look elsewhere for this patient. In early March, Andree Smith, Central Ontario’s Regional Manager of Product and Hospital Services, contacted the U.S., U.K., French and Australian blood agencies for donors, all to no avail. She also contacted the Finnish Red Cross in Helsinki, who had a donor who was eligible and willing to go in the next day. Within days, a liquid unit of this antigen-negative blood was on its way to Toronto and transfused into Stella.

The U.K. did, however, have a few frozen units and they were willing to share (though it would have left them with none) and France also had some frozen units. But in both cases, these units had actually been imported from Japan. A Japanese physician interested in this particular protein antigen had set up a screening procedure and identified a pool of Japanese donors.

As it became apparent that more blood would be needed for this patient, Dr. Robert Skeate, associate medical director in the Toronto centre, contacted a physician at the Japanese Red Cross rare blood program in Osaka. They managed to find two matching donors who were willing to come in.

But the day they were scheduled to donate, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck Japan, triggering a devastating tsunami and precipitating a nuclear meltdown. The loss of life and infrastructure was staggering.

Dr. Skeate emailed his Japanese colleagues and offered condolences and assistance. After a few days of unnerving silence, a reply came back.  They were grateful for the well wishes, but the units from the Japanese donors had been collected and they still needed a shipping address. The Japanese units arrived in Toronto amidst a severe snow and ice storm.

Today, Stella still undergoes chemotherapy but she is well enough that her bone marrow is producing its own blood, allowing her to donate autologously.

“It’s hard to put into words how much these strangers mean to me. They saved my life. The Japanese donors were going through a crisis in their own country after the earthquake and tsunami and they still went in to donate,” says Stella. “I feel completely grateful to all of the donors who helped me.”

“I was pretty much dying at the beginning of last year and now I’m great,” says Stella. “It took time for the chemo to kick in to fight the cancer in my bone marrow. Blood donations bought me the time I needed until my body was able to start producing blood on its own.”

For Dr. Skeate, he feels blessed to have played a small part in this incredible story. “This was like a perfect storm. Every horrible thing, big and small, that could go wrong, did. But thanks to the generosity of blood donors from around the world, and the energy and skills of the crew in Toronto, every critical thing that needed to go right, did.”