For young couple, first ever PMC Unpaved ride is a sign of hope

BEDFORD, N.H. — Kelly Chen was determined to return to China. At 18, the Bedford, New Hampshire native was forced to cut short her first visit to the country when she got sick.

“They originally thought it was leukemia,” she explained to WBZ’s Lisa Hughes.  “So when tests came back negative for leukemia they were pretty sure it was Aplastic anemia.”

Kelly returned to New England and received the official diagnosis at Boston Children’s Hospital.  Her body wasn’t producing blood cells—red or white— or platelets in sufficient numbers.  Aplastic anemia is a rare disease that affects roughly one in 500,000 people. 

In June of 2017, she received a bone marrow transplant. The donor was her older sister Katie. While Kelly said she never doubted that she would recover, the experience (including nine months in quarantine) gave her a new perspective on her health, life, and future. She knew that she loved China and wanted to return to the country with a new focus.

“I had a lot more intention of I actually want to try make a difference in myself and the people that I was with. That’s one reason why I wanted to go to school and learn Mandarin. You can’t make a difference and influence people if you can’t speak their native language,” she said.

That determination led her to Foshan University in Guangdong province where, one night, mutual friends introduced her to a fellow student named Benson Chen.  At that point, she spoke no Mandarin. Benson spoke a little English. But in sharing activities, photos and social media, they formed a friendship that eventually led to conversations about Kelly’s health scare and her father’s death. Kelly and her dad had been very close. When he died, unexpectedly, she found herself wanting to share happy memories of him with other people. Benson was a good listener. 

“I brought it up initially. But then, when he messaged me about it…it made me feel this trust. He acknowledged this difficulty in my life and he was open to talk more about it.”

A year and a half into their friendship, Benson began to see Kelly in a new light—as someone he hoped would be his girlfriend. He admired her bravery and strength. They started talking more and double-dating with friends. 

“I would prepare questions,” Benson recalled. “The kind of questions I would want to ask her. I couldn’t organize my English.” He wanted to get to know Kelly better and—while each was learning the other’s language— he was determined to learn more about her. 

Kelly and Benson married in China on April 24, 2021. Because of COVID protocols, her family couldn’t travel to the ceremony. They watched via Zoom as the couple exchanged their vows, the 12-hour time difference notwithstanding. They were happy but something was wrong. Kelly had felt out of sorts before the wedding but chalked it up to multiple stressors. The feeling—five days into their honeymoon—was eerily familiar.

“I got to the point where it was like—I really couldn’t stand up for too long. If I walked more than three minutes, I thought that I was going to pass out.” 

Tests confirmed her fears. Her body was no longer making blood cells or platelets. She knew that she had to get back to Boston—to the doctors at the Jimmy Fund Clinic who had treated her years earlier. Once Benson was approved for an emergency visa, they left for the United States. The couple landed at Logan Airport on May 26, 2021, and drove straight to the hospital. 

Kelly knew that the odds of an Aplastic anemia relapse were also 1 in 500,000. Despite the similarity of the symptoms, a relapse was unlikely. So, what was wrong? Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital assembled a team of doctors who were determined to figure out what was making her so sick.

“I’m a medical mystery,” she said smiling. “They’re calling it a complication of transplant. They have no idea how it happened or where it came from. It’s called donor type aplasia.” 

Her cells were attacking one another. Four months later, they came up with a treatment plan. Kelly received infusions of ATG—bone marrow-rich proteins from a horse. She also began taking medication to ensure that her body would accept the foreign proteins.

Almost a year later, she is doing well enough to anticipate a December date on which she will stop taking medication altogether. “I always felt confident in my doctors. They were really comforting.”

That sense of comfort and gratitude made participation in the Pan-Mass Challenge’s inaugural gravel ride, PMC Unpaved, a perfect fit for the couple. Benson is an avid cyclist who once rode three days from Foshan University to his village in China. He has also challenged himself on major climbs in Asia. He considers it a privilege to ride and raise money for Dana Farber.

 “It’s important for me. And it’s fun for me. Lots of people don’t know about this rare disease. We need to help. We need to have sympathy to understand other people’s lives,” he said.

Benson will ride the 50-mile route in the Berkshires on Saturday, October 1 on his mountain bike. Kelly will volunteer at the third water stop.

Their first taste of PMC magic came at the 2022 PMC Winter Cycle at Fenway Park. “I would definitely do it again!” Kelly beamed, “It was so much fun!”

Fun is a theme in their lives these days. They’ve adopted an adorable, energetic golden retriever named Lando (who delighted in darting around the yard with WBZ photographer Terry McNamara’s GoPro), traveled to Jordan and are planning to visit Panama. Kelly is taking classes—remotely—at the University of Montana. She marvels at Benson’s ability to rise to a challenge neither of them could have anticipated. 

“He’s never gone through anything like this. My husband, taking the time to learn to care for me, has established a lot of hope. The people around you—going through a traumatic event—make a big difference.” 

Benson said he remembers a time when he wondered what would happen if Kelly got sick again. Now he knows that theirs is a partnership that makes them both stronger. “You should live your daily life with adventure and fun and with someone you love. It’s all about hope.”

For more information on riding, volunteering, or donating, visit

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