I Saved a Stranger’s Life By Donating Stem Cells

I was perfectly healthy and he was dying of leukemia. We were from completely different worlds, but we were each other’s perfect match.
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Publish date:
October 14, 2014
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Tags:
transplant, stem cells, Leukemia

Right before Christmas I got the call.

“Of the six initial matches, you’re his most ideal match,” said the woman on the other end of the line. I was stunned. A few weeks prior, I had received a letter from the Be the Match, a non-profit that helps connect donors and patients, stating that I was a potential match for a man who was in desperate need of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

I had signed up for the registry a decade earlier, when I was an idealistic 19-year-old college student who wanted to save the world, never expecting a call since matches typically occur because of a shared ethnic background. As the daughter of a Korean father and Jewish mother from Ireland, I figured that the odds of ever hearing from Be the Match were slim to none.

“What’s his story?” I asked. All she could tell me was that he was 29 -- just like I was at the time -- and dying from Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). She couldn’t say where he lived, if he had a wife or kids, or if he was a good person. Not that it would have mattered. “Time is of the essence,” she explained. “We need your answer as soon as possible.”

I imagined this man in a hospital, desperately searching for a donor (a process that can take months when family members aren’t a match), while I was out carousing with friends, attending glamorous parties, and holiday shopping.

“I’ll do it,” I said, the little hairs on the back of my neck standing at attention.

Earlier that year, I had gone through a traumatic breakup, and even though I had a dream job as a journalist who got to interview the world’s most famous actors, musicians, and designers, something was definitely missing. All of a sudden I had a pretty serious purpose in life: to try and save his.

The doctors had decided that I would donate stem cells, not bone marrow, which meant no surgery and no down time. My advocate from Be the Match answered all of my questions and accompanied me to various appointments.

I had to stay healthy during the holiday season as they prepped my recipient for the transplant, destroying his entire immune system so it wouldn’t attack my donated cells. I had an all-day physical at UCLA Medical Center to make sure I was a good candidate, several pregnancy tests, and received five days of injections of filgrastim, which helped me produce more blood stem cells.

On the day of my donation in late January I was excited. I knew I was in good hands at one of the world’s top hospitals and I had my parents and sister to keep me entertained while I lay in a bed for four-hour stretches over two back-to-back days.

My blood was removed through a needle in one arm and then passed through a machine that looked like a prop from a 1950s TV show. The remaining blood was returned to me through an IV the other arm. It was painless and uneventful. I walked out of UCLA with a pink bandage and a bagel.

On the second day of the donation, the nurses were teasing me that my recipient was going to be my future husband. They imagined all sorts of scenarios, which kept me entertained. The match already felt like a one-in-a-million type thing so what would the odds be that we would also fall in love? It would make for a great Lifetime movie.

But the jovial mood turned serious when the medical courier arrived to take the two bags of six million stem cells on a plane. Like any good journalist, I tried pumping him for information. “Is it warm where you’re going?” “Is there a big time change?” “How long is your flight?” He said nothing.

That night, I thought about my precious cells, housed in a plastic cooler, flying 30,000 feet in the air to god knows where. Although I’m not religious, I prayed hard that it would work. I wanted nothing more than for it to work.

The next year was a long one, as my recipient and I weren’t allowed any personal contact. Because not all transplants are successful, Be the Match doesn’t want you getting emotionally attached, but it was too late for that. I thought of him constantly, wondering if he was out of the hospital, if he was still alive, and if we would meet one day.

Thirteen months after my donation I was home working and got a call from a hospital in Florida. A bubbly nurse asked me if I’d like to talk to my recipient. I was almost paralyzed with nerves. I could talk to Beyoncé or Tom Hanks for work, but this call felt like the most important one of my life.

A soft voice came on the line. “Thank you for saving my life,” he said. His name was Jaciel and he was a line cook who lived in Fort Myers, Florida. He said we were “blood for life” and called me his angel.

We quickly exchanged photos via email. He was shocked to see that I was an Asian girl from Los Angeles and I was even more surprised to learn that he was Mexican. I spoke to his lovely girlfriend Maria, the real angel in this situation, who was by his side the entire time. Coincidentally, my new boyfriend Tim was also from Florida, so we planned to visit later that year.

Over the next six months, Jaciel’s biopsies kept coming back clean. The transplant worked and he went back to work. The day before Thanksgiving, we met in Miami, with our respective significant others by our sides. We all had a lot to be thankful for.

Tim and I eventually got engaged and married, as did Jaciel and Maria, and we continue to get together when we can, sharing meals and stories. At one of these meetings, Maria announced that she was pregnant. It felt like a miracle as doctors had told Jaciel that the rounds of chemo he endured would make having kids impossible.

“If it’s a girl we are going to call her Victoria,” she said. “For you.” I was speechless. It felt like too much. I’ve never known any other Victorias. I was always the only one my whole life.

They ended up having a beautiful boy, Jaciel Jr., but a few years later, Maria was pregnant again and this time it was a girl. I finally know another Victoria in the world.

You can learn more about joining the registry here.