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Former University of Florida lacrosse player saves woman’s life with stem cell transplant

Feb 06, 2024 by Gift of Life Donor Story

Nolan joined Gift of Life Marrow Registry as a volunteer donor during club lacrosse practice at the University of Florida in 2020, along with 29 of his fellow teammates – the entire team joined the registry. The drive was organized in memory of Saxton Dunlap, a lacrosse player from Florida who was about to enter college but could not find a stem cell donor in time to save his life. Saxton’s family and Webber University, where he had been recruited for lacrosse, continue to hold drives with Gift of Life to help patients find donors.

“Once we heard the story, that’s why we swabbed,” said Nolan. “It seemed like a no-brainer to possibly help someone who is in a tough situation, with little effort from me. It’s not very often you get the chance to do something to help a complete stranger.” 

Nolan (left) joined Gift of Life Marrow Registry while a student at the University of Florida. He's shown here with other members of the lacrosse team at practice.

When Nolan received the call that he was a match for a woman in her late 40s battling myelodysplastic disorder, his mother Elizabeth told him they already knew someone who’d had a transplant through Gift of Life. Their family friend Leya Parker's life was saved in 2014, and she met her donor, Jonathan Struhl, now serving on Gift of Life’s Board of Directors, at the organization’s annual gala in 2015

“Everyone in my family and my workplace was so supportive,” said Nolan. “We all know someone who has been affected by cancer, so they were happy I was able to give someone an extra shot.” 

Nolan lives and works in the Jacksonville, Fla. area, and his parents live nearby, so his mom made the drive with him to Gift of Life’s headquarters in Boca Raton for his donation. 

“Gift of Life put me up at a fancy hotel on the beach, it was gorgeous,” he said. “And the staff at the collection center were amazing, laughing and joking as we got ready for the donation process. There was very positive energy and that was nice.”

Remember that you are never alone in hard times, sometimes the people who will help the most are complete strangers.

Stem cell donors receive five doses of Neupogen in the days before donating, to encourage stem cells to move from the marrow into the circulating blood. Many donors experience bone aches and tiredness while taking Neupogen, which clears up shortly after the collection.

“Though it did make me tired (I took a few more naps than normal) I got to have some nice dinners with my mom and walk on the beach,” said Nolan. “It isn’t often I get to spend one-on-one time with her so that was a great part of the experience.”

When asked how long it took to recover from both Neupogen and the donation itself, Nolan said, “Within about 48 hours I was back to normal. If I were going to an athletic practice, I might not do the full contact drills if I were sore right after donating, but after two days you ought to be good.” 

At Gift of Life, we see every donor as a lifesaving hero, but Nolan says hero may be too strong a term.

“I got an all-expenses paid trip to Boca for two days with my mom, sat in a chair for a few hours, and watched movies,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like I did something heroic – I just signed up at a lacrosse practice – but it is definitely a cool process. The real heroes are the ones out getting more people to join the registry and save lives.”

After his stem cell donation was finished, Nolan and his mother Elizabeth put a pin in Gift of Life's map to show where he traveled from to donate. Nolan is pointing at Jacksonville, Florida, and his mom has a huge smile and looks very proud of him.

Yet, Nolan does feel like donating has had an impact on him.

“Stem cell donation was a reminder to never take anything for granted,” he said. “Also, remember that you are never alone in hard times, sometimes the people who will help the most are complete strangers.”

Nolan lives in the Jacksonville, Fla. area where he is a sales representative for an HVAC company. He graduated from the University of Florida. In his free time, he enjoys surfing, working out and hanging out with his friends. He’s also looking forward to the opportunity to meet his recipient someday, saying, “If it were me on the other side, I’d definitely want to know who donated.”